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Radioactive decay will change one nucleus to another if the product nucleus has a greater nuclear binding energy than the initial decaying nucleus. The difference in binding energy (comparing the before and after states) determines which decays are energetically possible and which are not. The excess binding energy appears as kinetic energy or rest mass energy of the decay products.
The Chart of the Nuclides, part of which is shown above is a plot of nuclei as a function of proton number, Z, and neutron number, N. All stable nuclei and known radioactive nuclei, both naturally occurring and manmade, are shown on this chart, along with their decay properties. Nuclei with an excess of protons or neutrons in comparison with the stable nuclei will decay toward the stable nuclei by changing protons into neutrons or neutrons into protons, or else by shedding neutrons or protons either singly or in combination. Nuclei are also unstable if they are excited, that is, not in their lowest energy states. In this case the nucleus can decay by getting rid of its excess energy without changing Z or N by emitting a gamma ray.
Nuclear decay processes must satisfy several conservation laws, meaning that the value of the conserved quantity after the decay, taking into account all the decay products, must equal the same quantity evaluated for the nucleus before the decay. Conserved quantities include total energy (including mass), electric charge, linear and angular momentum, number of nucleons, and lepton number (sum of the number of electrons, neutrinos, positrons and antineutrinos–with antiparticles counting as -1).
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