In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, a nuclear reaction is semantically considered to be the process in which two nuclei, or else a nucleus of an atom and a subatomic particle (such as a proton, neutron, or high energy electron) from outside the atom, collide to produce one or more nuclides that are different from the nuclide(s) that began the process. Thus, a nuclear reaction must cause a transformation of at least one nuclide to another. If a nucleus interacts with another nucleus or particle and they then separate without changing the nature of any nuclide, the process is simply referred to as a type of nuclear scattering, rather than a nuclear reaction.
In principle, a reaction can involve more than two particles colliding, but because the probability of three or more nuclei to meet at the same time at the same place is much less than for two nuclei, such an event is exceptionally rare (see triple alpha process for an example very close to a three-body nuclear reaction). "Nuclear reaction" is a term implying an induced change in a nuclide, and thus it does not apply to any type of radioactive decay (which by definition is a spontaneous process).
Natural nuclear reactions occur in the interaction between cosmic rays and matter, and nuclear reactions can be employed artificially to obtain nuclear energy, at an adjustable rate, on demand. Perhaps the most notable nuclear reactions are the nuclear chain reactions in fissionable materials that produces induced nuclear fission, and the various nuclear fusion reactions of light elements that power the energy production of the Sun and stars. Both of these types of reactions are employed in nuclear weapons.
Nuclear reactions may be shown in a form similar to chemical equations, for which invariant mass must balance for each side of the equation, and in which transformations of particles must follow certain conservation laws, such as conservation of charge and baryon number (total atomic mass number). An example of this notation follows:
To balance the equation above for mass, charge and mass number, the second nucleus to the right must have atomic number 2 and mass number 4; it is therefore also helium-4. The complete equation therefore reads: