Every atom is the positive charge and mass are densely concentrated at the centre of the atom forming its nucleus. The overall dimensions of a nucleus are much smaller than those of an atom. Experiments on scattering of a-particles demonstrated that the radius of a nucleus was smaller than the radius of an atom by a factor of about 104. This means the volume of a nucleus is about 10–12 times the volume of the atom. In other words, an atom is almost empty. If an atom is enlarged to the size of a classroom, the nucleus would be of the size of pinhead. Nevertheless, the nucleus contains most (more than 99.9%) of the mass of an atom.

Does the nucleus have a structure, just as the atom does? If so, what are the constituents of the nucleus? How are these held together? In this chapter, we shall look for answers to such questions. We shall discuss various properties of nuclei such as their size, mass and stability, and also associated nuclear phenomena such as radioactivity, fission and fusion.


The mass of an atom is very small, compared to a kilogram; for example, the mass of a carbon atom, 12C, is 1.992647 × 10–26 kg. Kilogram is not a very convenient unit to measure such small quantities. Therefore, a different mass unit is used for expressing atomic masses. This unit is the atomic mass unit (u), defined as 1/12th of the mass of the carbon (12C) atom.

Discovery of Neutron

Since the nuclei of deuterium and tritium are isotopes of hydrogen, they must contain only one proton each. But the masses of the nuclei of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium are in the ratio of 1:2:3. Therefore, the nuclei of deuterium and tritium must contain, in addition to a proton, some neutral matter. The amount of neutral matter present in the nuclei of these isotopes, expressed in units of mass of a proton, is approximately equal to one and two, respectively. This fact indicates that the nuclei of atoms contain, in addition to protons, neutral matter in multiples of a basic unit. This hypothesis was verified in 1932 by James Chadwick who observed emission of neutral radiation when beryllium nuclei were bombarded with alpha-particles (a-particles are helium nuclei, to be discussed in a later section). It was found that this neutral radiation could knock out protons from light nuclei such as those of helium, carbon and nitrogen. The only neutral radiation known at that time was photons (electromagnetic radiation).  

Application of the principles of conservation of energy and momentum showed that if the neutral radiation consisted of photons, the energy of photons would have to be much higher than is available from the bombardment of beryllium nuclei with a-particles. The clue to this puzzle, which Chadwick satisfactorily solved, was to assume that the neutral radiation consists of a new type of neutral particles called neutrons. From conservation of energy and momentum, he was able to determine the mass of new particle ‘as very nearly the same as mass of proton’. The mass of a neutron is now known to a high degree of accuracy. It is mn = 1.00866 u = 1.6749×10–27 kg

Chadwick was awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the neutron. A free neutron, unlike a free proton, is unstable. It decays into a proton, an electron and a antineutrino (another elementary particle), and has a mean life of about 1000s. It is, however, stable inside the nucleus. The composition of a nucleus can now be described using the following terms and symbols:

Z atomic number = number of protons

N neutron number = number of neutrons

A mass number = Z + N

= total number of protons and neutrons


 Rutherford was the pioneer who postulated and established the existence of the atomic nucleus. At Rutherford’s suggestion, Geiger and Marsden performed their classic experiment: on the scattering of a-particles from thin gold foils. Their experiments revealed that the distance of closest approach to a gold nucleus of an a-particle of kinetic energy 5.5 MeV is about 4.0 × 10–14 m. The scattering of a-particle by the gold sheet could be understood by Rutherford by assuming that the coulomb repulsive force was solely responsible for scattering. Since the positive charge is confined to the nucleus, the actual size of the nucleus has to be less than 4.0 × 10–14 m. If we use a-particles of higher energies than 5.5 MeV, the distance of closest approach to the gold nucleus will be smaller and at some point the scattering will begin to be affected by the short range nuclear forces, and differ from Rutherford’s calculations. Rutherford’s calculations are based on pure coulomb repulsion between the positive charges of the a- particle and the gold nucleus. From the distance at which deviations set in, nuclear sizes can be inferred.

By performing scattering experiments in which fast electrons, instead of a-particles, are projectiles that bombard targets made up of various elements, the sizes of nuclei of various elements have been accurately measured.


Mass – Energy

Einstein showed from his theory of special relativity that it is necessary to treat mass as another form of energy. Before the advent of this theory of special relativity it was presumed that mass and energy were conserved separately in a reaction. However, Einstein showed that mass is another form of energy and one can convert mass-energy into other forms of energy, say kinetic energy and vice-versa.

Einstein gave the famous mass-energy equivalence relation

E = mc2

Experimental verification of the Einstein’s mass-energy relation has been achieved in the study of nuclear reactions amongst nucleons, nuclei, electrons and other more recently discovered particles. In a reaction the conservation law of energy states that the initial energy and the final energy are equal provided the energy associated with mass is also included. This concept is important in understanding nuclear masses and the interaction of nuclei with one another.

Nuclear binding energy

We have seen that the nucleus is made up of neutrons and protons. Therefore it may be expected that the mass of the nucleus is equal to the total mass of its individual protons and neutrons. However, the  nuclear mass M is found to be always less than this. For example, let us consider 16 8O ; a nucleus which has 8 neutrons and 8 protons. We have

Mass of 8 neutrons = 8 × 1.00866 u

Mass of 8 protons = 8 × 1.00727 u

Mass of 8 electrons = 8 × 0.00055 u


The force that determines the motion of atomic electrons is the familiar Coulomb force. We have seen that for average mass nuclei the binding energy per nucleon is approximately 8 MeV, which is much larger than the binding energy in atoms. Therefore, to bind a nucleus together there must be a strong attractive force of a totally different kind. It must be strong enough to overcome the repulsion between the (positively charged) protons and to bind both protons and neutrons into the tiny nuclear volume. We have already seen that the constancy of binding energy per nucleon can be understood in terms of its short-range. Many features of the nuclear binding force are summarised below. These are obtained from a variety of experiments carried out during 1930 to 1950.

(i) The nuclear force is much stronger than the Coulomb force acting between charges or the gravitational forces between masses. The nuclear binding force has to dominate over the Coulomb repulsive force between protons inside the nucleus. This happens only because the nuclear force is much stronger than the coulomb force. The gravitational force is much weaker than even Coulomb force.

(ii) The nuclear force between two nucleons falls rapidly to zero as their distance is more than a few femtometres. This leads to saturation of forces in a medium or a large-sized nucleus, which is the reason for the constancy of the binding energy per nucleon.

A rough plot of the potential energy between two nucleons as a function of distance. The potential energy is a minimum at a distance r0 of about 0.8 fm. This means that the force is attractive for distances larger than 0.8 fm and repulsive if they are separated by distances less than 0.8 fm.

(iii) The nuclear force between neutron-neutron, proton-neutron and proton-proton is approximately the same. The nuclear force does not depend on the electric charge. Unlike Coulomb’s law or the Newton’s law of gravitation there is no simple mathematical form of the nuclear force.


A. H. Becquerel discovered radioactivity in 1896 purely by accident. While studying the fluorescence and phosphorescence of compounds irradiated with visible light, Becquerel observed an interesting phenomenon. After illuminating some pieces of uranium-potassium sulphate with visible light, he wrapped them in black paper and separated the package from a photographic plate by a piece of silver. When, after several hours of exposure, the photographic plate was developed, it showed blackening due to something that must have been emitted by the compound and was able to penetrate both black paper and the silver.

Experiments performed subsequently showed that radioactivity was a nuclear phenomenon in which an unstable nucleus undergoes a decay. This is referred to as radioactive decay. Three types of radioactive decay occur in nature :

(i) a-decay in which a helium nucleus 4 2He is emitted;

(ii) b-decay in which electrons or positrons (particles with the same mass as electrons, but with a charge exactly opposite to that of electron) are emitted;

(iii) g-decay in which high energy (hundreds of keV or more) photons are emitted.

Each of these decay will be considered in subsequent sub-sections.

Marie Sklodowska Curie

Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934) Born in Poland. She is recognised both as a physicist and as a chemist. The discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 inspired Marie and her husband Pierre Curie in their researches and analyses which led to the isolation of radium and polonium elements. She was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes- for Physics in 1903 and for Chemistry in 1911.


The curve of binding energy per nucleon Ebn, has a long flat middle region between A = 30 and A = 170. In this region the binding energy per nucleon is nearly constant (8.0 MeV). For the lighter nuclei region, A < 30, and for the heavier nuclei region, A > 170, the binding energy per nucleon is less than 8.0 MeV, as we have noted earlier. Now, the greater the binding energy, the less is the total mass of a bound system, such as a nucleus. Consequently, if nuclei with less total binding energy transform to nuclei with greater binding energy, there will be a net energy release. This is what happens when a heavy nucleus decays into two or more intermediate mass fragments (fission) or when light nuclei fuse into a havier nucleus (fusion.) Exothermic chemical reactions underlie conventional energy sources such as coal or petroleum. Here the energies  involved are in the range of electron volts. On the other hand, in a nuclear reaction, the energy release is of the order of MeV. Thus for the same quantity of matter, nuclear sources produce a million times more energy than a chemical source. Fission of 1 kg of uranium, for example, generates 1014 J of energy; compare it with burning of 1 kg of coal that gives 107 J.


New possibilities emerge when we go beyond natural radioactive decays and study nuclear reactions by bombarding nuclei with other nuclear particles such as proton, neutron, a-particle, etc. A most important neutron-induced nuclear reaction is fission.


The atomic energy programme in India was launched around the time of  independence under the leadership of Homi J. Bhabha (1909-1966). An early historic achievement was the design and construction of the first nuclear reactor in India (named Apsara) which went critical on August 4, 1956. It used enriched uranium as fuel and water as moderator. Following this was another notable landmark: the construction of CIRUS (Canada India Research U.S.) reactor in 1960. This 40 MW reactor used natural uranium as fuel and heavy water as moderator. Apsara and CIRUS spurred research in a wide range of areas of basic and applied nuclear science. An important milestone in the first two decades of the programme was the indigenous design and construction of the plutonium plant at Trombay, which ushered in the technology of fuel reprocessing (separating useful fissile and fertile nuclear materials from the spent fuel of a reactor) in India. Research reactors that have been subsequently commissioned include ZERLINA,

PURNIMA (I, II and III), DHRUVA and KAMINI. KAMINI is the country’s first large research reactor that uses U-233 as fuel. As the name suggests, the primary objective of a research reactor is not generation of power but to provide a facility for research on different aspects of nuclear science and technology. Research reactors are also an excellent source for production of a variety of radioactive isotopes that find application in diverse fields: industry, medicine and agriculture.

The main objectives of the Indian Atomic Energy programme are to provide safe and reliable electric power for the country’s social and economic progress and to be selfreliant in all aspects of nuclear technology. Exploration of atomic minerals in India undertaken since the early fifties has indicated that India has limited reserves of uranium, but fairly abundant reserves of thorium. Accordingly, our country has adopted a threestage strategy of nuclear power generation. The first stage involves the use of natural uranium as a fuel, with heavy water as moderator. The Plutonium-239 obtained from reprocessing of the discharged fuel from the reactors then serves as a fuel for the second stage — the fast breeder reactors. They are so called because they use fast neutrons for sustaining the chain reaction (hence no moderator is needed) and, besides generating power, also breed more fissile species (plutonium) than they consume. The third stage, most significant in the long term, involves using fast breeder reactors to produce fissile Uranium-233 from Thorium-232 and to build power reactors based on them. India is currently well into the second stage of the programme and considerable

work has also been done on the third — the thorium utilisation — stage. The country has mastered the complex technologies of mineral exploration and mining, fuel fabrication, heavy water production, reactor design, construction and operation, fuel reprocessing, etc. Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) built at different sites in the country mark the accomplishment of the first stage of the programme. India is now more than self-sufficient in heavy water production. Elaborate safety measures both in the design and operation of reactors, as also adhering to stringent standards of radiological protection are the hallmark of the Indian Atomic Energy Programme.

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