Nuclear technology

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Nuclear technology is technology that involves the reactions of atomic nuclei. It has found applications from smoke detectors to nuclear reactors, and from gun sights to nuclear weapons.

Contents

History and scientific background

Discovery

The vast majority of common, natural phenomena on Earth only involve gravity and electromagnetism, and not nuclear reactions. This is because atomic nuclei are generally kept apart because they contain positive electrical charges and therefore repel each other.

In 1896, Henri Becquerel was investigating phosphorescence in uranium salts when he discovered a new phenomenon which came to be called radioactivity.[1] He, Pierre Curie and Marie Curie began investigating the phenomenon. In the process, they isolated the element radium, which is highly radioactive. They discovered that radioactive materials produce intense, penetrating rays of three distinct sorts, which they labeled alpha, beta, and gamma after the Greek letters. Some of these kinds of radiation could pass through ordinary matter, and all of them could be harmful in large amounts. All the early researchers received various radiation burns, much like sunburn, and thought little of it.

The new phenomenon of radioactivity was seized upon by the manufacturers of quack medicine (as had the discoveries of electricity and magnetism, earlier), and a number of patent medicines and treatments involving radioactivity were put forward. Gradually it was realized that the radiation produced by radioactive decay was ionizing radiation, and that even quantities too small to burn posed a severe long-term hazard. Many of the scientists working on radioactivity died of cancer as a result of their exposure. Radioactive patent medicines mostly disappeared, but other applications of radioactive materials persisted, such as the use of radium salts to produce glowing dials on meters.

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