Plutonium

Plutonium

Overview
Plutonium is a transuranic
Transuranium element
In chemistry, transuranium elements are the chemical elements with atomic numbers greater than 92...

 radioactive
Radioactive decay
Radioactive decay is the process by which an atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing particles . The emission is spontaneous, in that the atom decays without any physical interaction with another particle from outside the atom...

 chemical element
Chemical element
A chemical element is a pure chemical substance consisting of one type of atom distinguished by its atomic number, which is the number of protons in its nucleus. Familiar examples of elements include carbon, oxygen, aluminum, iron, copper, gold, mercury, and lead.As of November 2011, 118 elements...

 with the chemical symbol Pu and atomic number
Atomic number
In chemistry and physics, the atomic number is the number of protons found in the nucleus of an atom and therefore identical to the charge number of the nucleus. It is conventionally represented by the symbol Z. The atomic number uniquely identifies a chemical element...

 94. It is an actinide
Actinide
The actinide or actinoid series encompasses the 15 metallic chemical elements with atomic numbers from 89 to 103, actinium through lawrencium.The actinide series derives its name from the group 3 element actinium...

 metal
Metal
A metal , is an element, compound, or alloy that is a good conductor of both electricity and heat. Metals are usually malleable and shiny, that is they reflect most of incident light...

 of silvery-gray appearance that tarnish
Tarnish
Tarnish is a thin layer of corrosion that forms over copper, brass, silver, aluminum, and other similar metals as their outermost layer undergoes a chemical reaction. Tarnish does not always result from the sole effects of oxygen in the air. For example, silver needs hydrogen sulfide to tarnish; it...

es when exposed to air, forming a dull coating when oxidized. The element normally exhibits six allotropes and four oxidation state
Oxidation state
In chemistry, the oxidation state is an indicator of the degree of oxidation of an atom in a chemical compound. The formal oxidation state is the hypothetical charge that an atom would have if all bonds to atoms of different elements were 100% ionic. Oxidation states are typically represented by...

s. It reacts with carbon
Carbon
Carbon is the chemical element with symbol C and atomic number 6. As a member of group 14 on the periodic table, it is nonmetallic and tetravalent—making four electrons available to form covalent chemical bonds...

, halogen
Halogen
The halogens or halogen elements are a series of nonmetal elements from Group 17 IUPAC Style of the periodic table, comprising fluorine , chlorine , bromine , iodine , and astatine...

s, nitrogen
Nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

 and silicon
Silicon
Silicon is a chemical element with the symbol Si and atomic number 14. A tetravalent metalloid, it is less reactive than its chemical analog carbon, the nonmetal directly above it in the periodic table, but more reactive than germanium, the metalloid directly below it in the table...

. When exposed to moist air, it forms oxide
Oxide
An oxide is a chemical compound that contains at least one oxygen atom in its chemical formula. Metal oxides typically contain an anion of oxygen in the oxidation state of −2....

s and hydride
Hydride
In chemistry, a hydride is the anion of hydrogen, H−, or, more commonly, a compound in which one or more hydrogen centres have nucleophilic, reducing, or basic properties. In compounds that are regarded as hydrides, hydrogen is bonded to a more electropositive element or group...

s that expand the sample up to 70% in volume, which in turn flake off as a powder that can spontaneously ignite
Pyrophoricity
A pyrophoric substance is a substance that will ignite spontaneously in air. Examples are iron sulfide and many reactive metals including uranium, when powdered or sliced thin. Pyrophoric materials are often water-reactive as well and will ignite when they contact water or humid air...

.
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Unanswered Questions
Encyclopedia
Plutonium is a transuranic
Transuranium element
In chemistry, transuranium elements are the chemical elements with atomic numbers greater than 92...

 radioactive
Radioactive decay
Radioactive decay is the process by which an atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing particles . The emission is spontaneous, in that the atom decays without any physical interaction with another particle from outside the atom...

 chemical element
Chemical element
A chemical element is a pure chemical substance consisting of one type of atom distinguished by its atomic number, which is the number of protons in its nucleus. Familiar examples of elements include carbon, oxygen, aluminum, iron, copper, gold, mercury, and lead.As of November 2011, 118 elements...

 with the chemical symbol Pu and atomic number
Atomic number
In chemistry and physics, the atomic number is the number of protons found in the nucleus of an atom and therefore identical to the charge number of the nucleus. It is conventionally represented by the symbol Z. The atomic number uniquely identifies a chemical element...

 94. It is an actinide
Actinide
The actinide or actinoid series encompasses the 15 metallic chemical elements with atomic numbers from 89 to 103, actinium through lawrencium.The actinide series derives its name from the group 3 element actinium...

 metal
Metal
A metal , is an element, compound, or alloy that is a good conductor of both electricity and heat. Metals are usually malleable and shiny, that is they reflect most of incident light...

 of silvery-gray appearance that tarnish
Tarnish
Tarnish is a thin layer of corrosion that forms over copper, brass, silver, aluminum, and other similar metals as their outermost layer undergoes a chemical reaction. Tarnish does not always result from the sole effects of oxygen in the air. For example, silver needs hydrogen sulfide to tarnish; it...

es when exposed to air, forming a dull coating when oxidized. The element normally exhibits six allotropes and four oxidation state
Oxidation state
In chemistry, the oxidation state is an indicator of the degree of oxidation of an atom in a chemical compound. The formal oxidation state is the hypothetical charge that an atom would have if all bonds to atoms of different elements were 100% ionic. Oxidation states are typically represented by...

s. It reacts with carbon
Carbon
Carbon is the chemical element with symbol C and atomic number 6. As a member of group 14 on the periodic table, it is nonmetallic and tetravalent—making four electrons available to form covalent chemical bonds...

, halogen
Halogen
The halogens or halogen elements are a series of nonmetal elements from Group 17 IUPAC Style of the periodic table, comprising fluorine , chlorine , bromine , iodine , and astatine...

s, nitrogen
Nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

 and silicon
Silicon
Silicon is a chemical element with the symbol Si and atomic number 14. A tetravalent metalloid, it is less reactive than its chemical analog carbon, the nonmetal directly above it in the periodic table, but more reactive than germanium, the metalloid directly below it in the table...

. When exposed to moist air, it forms oxide
Oxide
An oxide is a chemical compound that contains at least one oxygen atom in its chemical formula. Metal oxides typically contain an anion of oxygen in the oxidation state of −2....

s and hydride
Hydride
In chemistry, a hydride is the anion of hydrogen, H−, or, more commonly, a compound in which one or more hydrogen centres have nucleophilic, reducing, or basic properties. In compounds that are regarded as hydrides, hydrogen is bonded to a more electropositive element or group...

s that expand the sample up to 70% in volume, which in turn flake off as a powder that can spontaneously ignite
Pyrophoricity
A pyrophoric substance is a substance that will ignite spontaneously in air. Examples are iron sulfide and many reactive metals including uranium, when powdered or sliced thin. Pyrophoric materials are often water-reactive as well and will ignite when they contact water or humid air...

. It is also radioactive
Radiation poisoning
Acute radiation syndrome also known as radiation poisoning, radiation sickness or radiation toxicity, is a constellation of health effects which occur within several months of exposure to high amounts of ionizing radiation...

 and can accumulate in the bone
Bone
Bones are rigid organs that constitute part of the endoskeleton of vertebrates. They support, and protect the various organs of the body, produce red and white blood cells and store minerals. Bone tissue is a type of dense connective tissue...

s. These properties make the improper handling of plutonium dangerous.

Plutonium is the heaviest primordial element by virtue of its most stable isotope
Isotopes of plutonium
Plutonium is an artificial element, except for trace quantities of primordial 244Pu, and thus a standard atomic mass cannot be given. Like all artificial elements, it has no stable isotopes. It was synthesized long before being found in nature, the first isotope synthesized being 238Pu in 1940....

, plutonium-244
Plutonium-244
Plutonium-244 is an isotope of plutonium that has a halflife of 80 million years. This is longer than any of the other isotopes of plutonium and longer than any actinide except for the three naturally abundant ones uranium-235 , uranium-238, and thorium-232...

, whose half-life
Half-life
Half-life, abbreviated t½, is the period of time it takes for the amount of a substance undergoing decay to decrease by half. The name was originally used to describe a characteristic of unstable atoms , but it may apply to any quantity which follows a set-rate decay.The original term, dating to...

 of about 80 million years is just long enough for the element to be found in trace quantities in nature. Plutonium is also a byproduct of nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

 in reactors: Some of the neutron
Neutron
The neutron is a subatomic hadron particle which has the symbol or , no net electric charge and a mass slightly larger than that of a proton. With the exception of hydrogen, nuclei of atoms consist of protons and neutrons, which are therefore collectively referred to as nucleons. The number of...

s released by the fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

 process convert uranium-238 nuclei into plutonium.

The most important isotope
Isotope
Isotopes are variants of atoms of a particular chemical element, which have differing numbers of neutrons. Atoms of a particular element by definition must contain the same number of protons but may have a distinct number of neutrons which differs from atom to atom, without changing the designation...

 of plutonium is plutonium-239
Plutonium-239
Plutonium-239 is an isotope of plutonium. Plutonium-239 is the primary fissile isotope used for the production of nuclear weapons, although uranium-235 has also been used and is currently the secondary isotope. Plutonium-239 is also one of the three main isotopes demonstrated usable as fuel in...

, with a half-life of 24,100 years. Plutonium-239 is the isotope most useful for nuclear weapons. Plutonium-239 and 241 are fissile
Fissile
In nuclear engineering, a fissile material is one that is capable of sustaining a chain reaction of nuclear fission. By definition, fissile materials can sustain a chain reaction with neutrons of any energy. The predominant neutron energy may be typified by either slow neutrons or fast neutrons...

, meaning the nuclei of their atoms can split
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

 when bombarded by thermal neutron
Neutron
The neutron is a subatomic hadron particle which has the symbol or , no net electric charge and a mass slightly larger than that of a proton. With the exception of hydrogen, nuclei of atoms consist of protons and neutrons, which are therefore collectively referred to as nucleons. The number of...

s, releasing energy, gamma radiation and more neutrons
Neutron radiation
Neutron radiation is a kind of ionizing radiation which consists of free neutrons. A result of nuclear fission or nuclear fusion, it consists of the release of free neutrons from atoms, and these free neutrons react with nuclei of other atoms to form new isotopes, which, in turn, may produce...

. These neutrons can sustain a nuclear chain reaction
Nuclear chain reaction
A nuclear chain reaction occurs when one nuclear reaction causes an average of one or more nuclear reactions, thus leading to a self-propagating number of these reactions. The specific nuclear reaction may be the fission of heavy isotopes or the fusion of light isotopes...

, leading to applications in nuclear weapon
Nuclear weapon
A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission or a combination of fission and fusion. Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter. The first fission bomb test released the same amount...

s and nuclear reactor
Nuclear reactor
A nuclear reactor is a device to initiate and control a sustained nuclear chain reaction. Most commonly they are used for generating electricity and for the propulsion of ships. Usually heat from nuclear fission is passed to a working fluid , which runs through turbines that power either ship's...

s.

Plutonium-238
Plutonium-238
-External links:**...

 has a half-life of 88 years and emits alpha particle
Alpha particle
Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus, which is classically produced in the process of alpha decay, but may be produced also in other ways and given the same name...

s. It is a heat source in radioisotope thermoelectric generator
Radioisotope thermoelectric generator
A radioisotope thermoelectric generator is an electrical generator that obtains its power from radioactive decay. In such a device, the heat released by the decay of a suitable radioactive material is converted into electricity by the Seebeck effect using an array of thermocouples.RTGs can be...

s, which are used to power some spacecraft
Spacecraft
A spacecraft or spaceship is a craft or machine designed for spaceflight. Spacecraft are used for a variety of purposes, including communications, earth observation, meteorology, navigation, planetary exploration and transportation of humans and cargo....

. Plutonium-240
Plutonium-240
Plutonium-240 is an isotope of the metal plutonium formed when plutonium-239 captures a neutron. About 62% to 73% of the time when Pu-239 captures a neutron it undergoes fission; the rest of the time it forms Pu-240. The longer a nuclear fuel element remains in a nuclear reactor the greater the...

 has a high rate of spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission is a form of radioactive decay characteristic of very heavy isotopes. Because the nuclear binding energy reaches a maximum at a nuclear mass greater than about 60 atomic mass units , spontaneous breakdown into smaller nuclei and single particles becomes possible at heavier masses...

, raising the neutron flux of any sample it is in. The presence of plutonium-240 limits a sample's usability for weapons or reactor fuel, and determines its grade. Plutonium isotopes are expensive and inconvenient to separate, so particular isotopes are usually manufactured in specialized reactors.

Plutonium was first synthesized in 1940 by a team led by Glenn T. Seaborg
Glenn T. Seaborg
Glenn Theodore Seaborg was an American scientist who won the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for "discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements", contributed to the discovery and isolation of ten elements, and developed the actinide concept, which led to the current arrangement of the...

 and Edwin McMillan
Edwin McMillan
Edwin Mattison McMillan was an American physicist and Nobel laureate credited with being the first ever to produce a transuranium element. He shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Glenn Seaborg in 1951....

 at the University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Berkeley
The University of California, Berkeley , is a teaching and research university established in 1868 and located in Berkeley, California, USA...

 laboratory by bombarding uranium-238
Uranium-238
Uranium-238 is the most common isotope of uranium found in nature. It is not fissile, but is a fertile material: it can capture a slow neutron and after two beta decays become fissile plutonium-239...

 with deuterons. Trace amounts of plutonium were subsequently discovered in nature. Producing plutonium in useful quantities for the first time was a major part of the Manhattan Project
Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was a research and development program, led by the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army...

 during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, which developed the first atomic bombs. The first nuclear test, "Trinity" (July 1945), and the second atomic bomb used to destroy a city (Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945
Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
During the final stages of World War II in 1945, the United States conducted two atomic bombings against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the first on August 6, 1945, and the second on August 9, 1945. These two events are the only use of nuclear weapons in war to date.For six months...

), "Fat Man
Fat Man
"Fat Man" is the codename for the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States on August 9, 1945. It was the second of the only two nuclear weapons to be used in warfare to date , and its detonation caused the third man-made nuclear explosion. The name also refers more...

", both had cores of plutonium-239. Human radiation experiments
Human radiation experiments
Since the discovery of ionizing radiation, a number of human radiation experiments have been performed to understand the effects of ionizing radiation and radioactive contamination on the human body, specifically with the element plutonium....

 studying plutonium were conducted without informed consent
Informed consent
Informed consent is a phrase often used in law to indicate that the consent a person gives meets certain minimum standards. As a literal matter, in the absence of fraud, it is redundant. An informed consent can be said to have been given based upon a clear appreciation and understanding of the...

, and a number of criticality accident
Criticality accident
A criticality accident, sometimes referred to as an excursion or a power excursion, is an accidental increase of nuclear chain reactions in a fissile material, such as enriched uranium or plutonium...

s, some lethal, occurred during and after the war. Disposal of plutonium waste from nuclear power plant
Nuclear power plant
A nuclear power plant is a thermal power station in which the heat source is one or more nuclear reactors. As in a conventional thermal power station the heat is used to generate steam which drives a steam turbine connected to a generator which produces electricity.Nuclear power plants are usually...

s and dismantled nuclear weapons
Nuclear disarmament
Nuclear disarmament refers to both the act of reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons and to the end state of a nuclear-free world, in which nuclear weapons are completely eliminated....

 built during the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

 is a nuclear-proliferation
Nuclear proliferation
Nuclear proliferation is a term now used to describe the spread of nuclear weapons, fissile material, and weapons-applicable nuclear technology and information, to nations which are not recognized as "Nuclear Weapon States" by the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the...

 and environmental concern. Other sources of plutonium in the environment
Plutonium in the environment
Part of the actinides in the environment series.Plutonium in the environment since the mid-20th century has primarily been due to human activity. The majority of plutonium isotopes are short-lived on a geological timescale. It has been argued that some natural plutonium can be found in nature...

 are fallout
Nuclear fallout
Fallout is the residual radioactive material propelled into the upper atmosphere following a nuclear blast, so called because it "falls out" of the sky after the explosion and shock wave have passed. It commonly refers to the radioactive dust and ash created when a nuclear weapon explodes...

 from numerous above-ground nuclear tests (now banned
Partial Test Ban Treaty
The treaty banning nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water, often abbreviated as the Partial Test Ban Treaty , Limited Test Ban Treaty , or Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is a treaty prohibiting all test detonations of nuclear weapons...

).

Physical properties


Plutonium, like most metals, has a bright silvery appearance at first, much like nickel
Nickel
Nickel is a chemical element with the chemical symbol Ni and atomic number 28. It is a silvery-white lustrous metal with a slight golden tinge. Nickel belongs to the transition metals and is hard and ductile...

, but it oxidizes very quickly to a dull gray, although yellow and olive green are also reported. At room temperature plutonium is in its α form
Allotropes of plutonium
Even at ambient pressure, plutonium occurs in a variety of allotropes. These allotropes differ widely in crystal structure and density; the α and δ allotropes differ in density by more than 25% at constant pressure....

 (alpha). This, the most common structural form of the element (allotrope), is about as hard and brittle as grey cast iron unless it is alloy
Alloy
An alloy is a mixture or metallic solid solution composed of two or more elements. Complete solid solution alloys give single solid phase microstructure, while partial solutions give two or more phases that may or may not be homogeneous in distribution, depending on thermal history...

ed with other metals to make it soft and ductile. Unlike most metals, it is not a good conductor of heat
Thermal conductivity
In physics, thermal conductivity, k, is the property of a material's ability to conduct heat. It appears primarily in Fourier's Law for heat conduction....

 or electricity. It has a low melting point
Melting point
The melting point of a solid is the temperature at which it changes state from solid to liquid. At the melting point the solid and liquid phase exist in equilibrium. The melting point of a substance depends on pressure and is usually specified at standard atmospheric pressure...

 (640 °C) and an unusually high boiling point
Boiling point
The boiling point of an element or a substance is the temperature at which the vapor pressure of the liquid equals the environmental pressure surrounding the liquid....

 (3,327 °C).

Alpha decay
Alpha decay
Alpha decay is a type of radioactive decay in which an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle and thereby transforms into an atom with a mass number 4 less and atomic number 2 less...

, the release of a high-energy helium
Helium
Helium is the chemical element with atomic number 2 and an atomic weight of 4.002602, which is represented by the symbol He. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas that heads the noble gas group in the periodic table...

 nucleus, is the most common form of radioactive decay
Radioactive decay
Radioactive decay is the process by which an atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing particles . The emission is spontaneous, in that the atom decays without any physical interaction with another particle from outside the atom...

 for plutonium. A 5 kg mass of 239Pu contains about 12.5 × 1024 atoms. With a half-life of 24,100 years, about 11.5 × 1012 of its atoms decay each second by emitting a 5.157 MeV
MEV
MeV and meV are multiples and submultiples of the electron volt unit referring to 1,000,000 eV and 0.001 eV, respectively.Mev or MEV may refer to:In entertainment:* Musica Elettronica Viva, an Italian musical group...

 alpha particle. This amounts to 9.68 watts of power. Heat produced by the deceleration of these alpha particles makes it warm to the touch.

Resistivity
Resistivity
Electrical resistivity is a measure of how strongly a material opposes the flow of electric current. A low resistivity indicates a material that readily allows the movement of electric charge. The SI unit of electrical resistivity is the ohm metre...

 is a measure of how strongly a material opposes the flow of electric current
Electric current
Electric current is a flow of electric charge through a medium.This charge is typically carried by moving electrons in a conductor such as wire...

. The resistivity of plutonium at room temperature is very high for a metal, and it gets even higher with lower temperatures, which is unusual for metals. This trend continues down to 100 K
Kelvin
The kelvin is a unit of measurement for temperature. It is one of the seven base units in the International System of Units and is assigned the unit symbol K. The Kelvin scale is an absolute, thermodynamic temperature scale using as its null point absolute zero, the temperature at which all...

, below which resistivity rapidly decreases for fresh samples. Resistivity then begins to increase with time at around 20 K due to radiation damage, with the rate dictated by the isotopic composition of the sample.

Because of self-irradiation, a sample of plutonium fatigues throughout its crystal structure, meaning the ordered arrangement of its atoms becomes disrupted by radiation with time. Self-irradiation can also lead to annealing
Annealing (metallurgy)
Annealing, in metallurgy and materials science, is a heat treatment wherein a material is altered, causing changes in its properties such as strength and hardness. It is a process that produces conditions by heating to above the recrystallization temperature, maintaining a suitable temperature, and...

 which counteracts some of the fatigue effects as temperature increases above 100 K.

Unlike most materials, plutonium increases in density when it melts, by 2.5%, but the liquid metal exhibits a linear decrease in density with temperature. Near the melting point, the liquid plutonium has also very high viscosity
Viscosity
Viscosity is a measure of the resistance of a fluid which is being deformed by either shear or tensile stress. In everyday terms , viscosity is "thickness" or "internal friction". Thus, water is "thin", having a lower viscosity, while honey is "thick", having a higher viscosity...

 and surface tension
Surface tension
Surface tension is a property of the surface of a liquid that allows it to resist an external force. It is revealed, for example, in floating of some objects on the surface of water, even though they are denser than water, and in the ability of some insects to run on the water surface...

 as compared to other metals.

Allotropes


Plutonium normally has six allotropes and forms a seventh (zeta, ζ) at high temperature within a limited pressure range. These allotropes, which are different structural modifications or forms of an element, have very similar internal energies
Internal energy
In thermodynamics, the internal energy is the total energy contained by a thermodynamic system. It is the energy needed to create the system, but excludes the energy to displace the system's surroundings, any energy associated with a move as a whole, or due to external force fields. Internal...

 but significantly varying densities
Density
The mass density or density of a material is defined as its mass per unit volume. The symbol most often used for density is ρ . In some cases , density is also defined as its weight per unit volume; although, this quantity is more properly called specific weight...

 and crystal structure
Crystal structure
In mineralogy and crystallography, crystal structure is a unique arrangement of atoms or molecules in a crystalline liquid or solid. A crystal structure is composed of a pattern, a set of atoms arranged in a particular way, and a lattice exhibiting long-range order and symmetry...

s. This makes plutonium very sensitive to changes in temperature, pressure, or chemistry, and allows for dramatic volume changes following phase transition
Phase transition
A phase transition is the transformation of a thermodynamic system from one phase or state of matter to another.A phase of a thermodynamic system and the states of matter have uniform physical properties....

s from one allotropic form to another. Densities of the different allotropes vary from 16.00 g/cm3 to 19.86 g/cm3.

The presence of these many allotropes makes machining plutonium very difficult, as it changes state very readily. For example, the α form exists at room temperature in unalloyed plutonium. It has machining characteristics similar to cast iron
Cast iron
Cast iron is derived from pig iron, and while it usually refers to gray iron, it also identifies a large group of ferrous alloys which solidify with a eutectic. The color of a fractured surface can be used to identify an alloy. White cast iron is named after its white surface when fractured, due...

 but changes to the plastic and malleable β form (beta) at slightly higher temperatures. The reasons for the complicated phase diagram are not entirely understood. The α form has a low-symmetry monoclinic
Monoclinic crystal system
In crystallography, the monoclinic crystal system is one of the 7 lattice point groups. A crystal system is described by three vectors. In the monoclinic system, the crystal is described by vectors of unequal length, as in the orthorhombic system. They form a rectangular prism with a...

 structure, hence its brittleness, strength, compressibility, and poor conductivity.

Plutonium in the δ form normally exists in the 310 °C to 452 °C range but is stable at room temperature when alloyed with a small percentage of gallium
Gallium
Gallium is a chemical element that has the symbol Ga and atomic number 31. Elemental gallium does not occur in nature, but as the gallium salt in trace amounts in bauxite and zinc ores. A soft silvery metallic poor metal, elemental gallium is a brittle solid at low temperatures. As it liquefies...

, aluminium
Aluminium
Aluminium or aluminum is a silvery white member of the boron group of chemical elements. It has the symbol Al, and its atomic number is 13. It is not soluble in water under normal circumstances....

, or cerium
Cerium
Cerium is a chemical element with the symbol Ce and atomic number 58. It is a soft, silvery, ductile metal which easily oxidizes in air. Cerium was named after the dwarf planet . Cerium is the most abundant of the rare earth elements, making up about 0.0046% of the Earth's crust by weight...

, enhancing workability and allowing it to be welded
Welding
Welding is a fabrication or sculptural process that joins materials, usually metals or thermoplastics, by causing coalescence. This is often done by melting the workpieces and adding a filler material to form a pool of molten material that cools to become a strong joint, with pressure sometimes...

. The delta form has more typical metallic character, and is roughly as strong and malleable as aluminium. In fission weapons, the explosive shock wave
Shock wave
A shock wave is a type of propagating disturbance. Like an ordinary wave, it carries energy and can propagate through a medium or in some cases in the absence of a material medium, through a field such as the electromagnetic field...

s used to compress a plutonium core will also cause a transition from the usual delta phase plutonium to the denser alpha form, significantly helping to achieve supercriticality. The ε phase, the highest temperature solid allotrope, exhibits anomalously high atomic self-diffusion
Self-diffusion
According to IUPAC definition, self-diffusion coefficient is the diffusion coefficient D_i^* of species i when the chemical potential gradient equals zero. It is linked to the diffusion coefficient D_i by the equation:...

 compared to other elements.

Nuclear fission


Plutonium is an element in which the 5f electrons are the transition border between delocalized and localized; it is therefore considered one of the most complex elements. It is a radioactive actinide
Actinide
The actinide or actinoid series encompasses the 15 metallic chemical elements with atomic numbers from 89 to 103, actinium through lawrencium.The actinide series derives its name from the group 3 element actinium...

 metal whose isotope
Isotope
Isotopes are variants of atoms of a particular chemical element, which have differing numbers of neutrons. Atoms of a particular element by definition must contain the same number of protons but may have a distinct number of neutrons which differs from atom to atom, without changing the designation...

, plutonium-239
Plutonium-239
Plutonium-239 is an isotope of plutonium. Plutonium-239 is the primary fissile isotope used for the production of nuclear weapons, although uranium-235 has also been used and is currently the secondary isotope. Plutonium-239 is also one of the three main isotopes demonstrated usable as fuel in...

, is one of the three primary fissile
Fissile
In nuclear engineering, a fissile material is one that is capable of sustaining a chain reaction of nuclear fission. By definition, fissile materials can sustain a chain reaction with neutrons of any energy. The predominant neutron energy may be typified by either slow neutrons or fast neutrons...

 isotopes (uranium-233
Uranium-233
Uranium-233 is a fissile isotope of uranium, bred from Thorium as part of the thorium fuel cycle. It has been used in a few nuclear reactors and has been proposed for much wider use as a nuclear fuel. It has a half-life of 160,000 years....

 and uranium-235
Uranium-235
- References :* .* DOE Fundamentals handbook: Nuclear Physics and Reactor theory , .* A piece of U-235 the size of a grain of rice can produce energy equal to that contained in three tons of coal or fourteen barrels of oil. -External links:* * * one of the earliest articles on U-235 for the...

 );
plutonium-241
Plutonium-241
Plutonium-241 is an isotope of plutonium formed when plutonium-240 captures a neutron. Like Pu-239 but unlike 240Pu, 241Pu is fissile, with a neutron absorption cross section about 1/3 greater than 239Pu, and a similar probability of fissioning on neutron absorption, around 73%. In the non-fission...

 is also highly fissile.
To be considered fissile, an isotope's atomic nucleus
Atomic nucleus
The nucleus is the very dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom. It was discovered in 1911, as a result of Ernest Rutherford's interpretation of the famous 1909 Rutherford experiment performed by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, under the direction of Rutherford. The...

 must be able to break apart or fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

 when struck by a slow moving neutron
Neutron temperature
The neutron detection temperature, also called the neutron energy, indicates a free neutron's kinetic energy, usually given in electron volts. The term temperature is used, since hot, thermal and cold neutrons are moderated in a medium with a certain temperature. The neutron energy distribution is...

, and to release enough additional neutrons in the process to sustain the nuclear chain reaction
Nuclear chain reaction
A nuclear chain reaction occurs when one nuclear reaction causes an average of one or more nuclear reactions, thus leading to a self-propagating number of these reactions. The specific nuclear reaction may be the fission of heavy isotopes or the fusion of light isotopes...

 by splitting further nuclei.

Plutonium-239 has a multiplication factor (k) larger than one, which means that if the metal is present in sufficient mass and with an appropriate geometry (e.g., a compressed sphere), it can form a critical mass
Critical mass
A critical mass is the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The critical mass of a fissionable material depends upon its nuclear properties A critical mass is the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The...

. During fission, a fraction of the binding energy
Binding energy
Binding energy is the mechanical energy required to disassemble a whole into separate parts. A bound system typically has a lower potential energy than its constituent parts; this is what keeps the system together—often this means that energy is released upon the creation of a bound state...

, which holds a nucleus together, is released as a large amount of electromagnetic and kinetic energy (much of the latter being quickly converted to thermal energy). Fission of a kilogram of plutonium-239 can produce an explosion equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT. It is this energy that makes plutonium-239 useful in nuclear weapon
Nuclear weapon
A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission or a combination of fission and fusion. Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter. The first fission bomb test released the same amount...

s and reactors
Nuclear reactor
A nuclear reactor is a device to initiate and control a sustained nuclear chain reaction. Most commonly they are used for generating electricity and for the propulsion of ships. Usually heat from nuclear fission is passed to a working fluid , which runs through turbines that power either ship's...

.

The presence of the isotope plutonium-240
Plutonium-240
Plutonium-240 is an isotope of the metal plutonium formed when plutonium-239 captures a neutron. About 62% to 73% of the time when Pu-239 captures a neutron it undergoes fission; the rest of the time it forms Pu-240. The longer a nuclear fuel element remains in a nuclear reactor the greater the...

 in a sample limits its nuclear bomb potential, as plutonium-240 has a relatively high spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission is a form of radioactive decay characteristic of very heavy isotopes. Because the nuclear binding energy reaches a maximum at a nuclear mass greater than about 60 atomic mass units , spontaneous breakdown into smaller nuclei and single particles becomes possible at heavier masses...

 rate (~440 fissions per second per gram—over 1,000 neutrons per second per gram), raising the background neutron levels and thus increasing the risk of predetonation
Fizzle (nuclear test)
In nuclear weapons, a fizzle occurs when the testing of a nuclear bomb fails to meet its expected yield. The reason for the failure can be linked to improper bomb design, poor construction, or lack of expertise. All countries that have had a nuclear weapons testing program have experienced fizzles...

. Plutonium is identified as either weapons-grade
Weapons-grade
A weapons-grade substance is one that is pure enough to be used to make a weapon or has properties that make it suitable for weapons use. Weapons-grade plutonium and uranium are the most common examples, but it may also be used to refer to chemical and biological weapons...

, fuel grade, or power reactor grade based on the percentage of plutonium-240 that it contains. Weapons-grade plutonium contains less than 7% plutonium-240. Fuel grade plutonium contains from 7% to less than 19%, and power reactor grade contains 19% or more plutonium-240. Supergrade plutonium, with less than 4% of plutonium-240, is used in U.S. Navy
United States Navy
The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined. The U.S...

 weapons stored in proximity to ship and submarine crews, due to its lower radioactivity. The isotope plutonium-238
Plutonium-238
-External links:**...

 is not fissile but can undergo nuclear fission easily with fast neutrons as well as alpha decay
Alpha decay
Alpha decay is a type of radioactive decay in which an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle and thereby transforms into an atom with a mass number 4 less and atomic number 2 less...

.

Isotopes and synthesis


Twenty radioactive isotopes of plutonium have been characterized. The longest-lived are plutonium-244, with a half-life of 80.8 million years, plutonium-242, with a half-life of 373,300 years, and plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,110 years. All of the remaining radioactive isotopes have half-lives that are less than 7,000 years. This element also has eight metastable states, though none are stable and all have half-lives less than one second.

The isotopes of plutonium range in mass number
Mass number
The mass number , also called atomic mass number or nucleon number, is the total number of protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus. Because protons and neutrons both are baryons, the mass number A is identical with the baryon number B as of the nucleus as of the whole atom or ion...

 from 228 to 247. The primary decay modes
Radioactive decay
Radioactive decay is the process by which an atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing particles . The emission is spontaneous, in that the atom decays without any physical interaction with another particle from outside the atom...

 of isotopes with mass numbers lower than the most stable isotope, plutonium-244, are spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission is a form of radioactive decay characteristic of very heavy isotopes. Because the nuclear binding energy reaches a maximum at a nuclear mass greater than about 60 atomic mass units , spontaneous breakdown into smaller nuclei and single particles becomes possible at heavier masses...

 and α emission, mostly forming uranium (92 proton
Proton
The proton is a subatomic particle with the symbol or and a positive electric charge of 1 elementary charge. One or more protons are present in the nucleus of each atom, along with neutrons. The number of protons in each atom is its atomic number....

s) and neptunium
Neptunium
Neptunium is a chemical element with the symbol Np and atomic number 93. A radioactive metal, neptunium is the first transuranic element and belongs to the actinide series. Its most stable isotope, 237Np, is a by-product of nuclear reactors and plutonium production and it can be used as a...

 (93 protons) isotopes as decay product
Decay product
In nuclear physics, a decay product is the remaining nuclide left over from radioactive decay. Radioactive decay often involves a sequence of steps...

s (neglecting the wide range of daughter nuclei created by fission processes). The primary decay mode for isotopes with mass numbers higher than plutonium-244 is β emission, mostly forming americium
Americium
Americium is a synthetic element that has the symbol Am and atomic number 95. This transuranic element of the actinide series is located in the periodic table below the lanthanide element europium, and thus by analogy was named after another continent, America.Americium was first produced in 1944...

 (95 protons) isotopes as decay products. Plutonium-241 is the parent isotope of the neptunium decay series, decaying to americium-241 via β or electron emission.

Plutonium-238 and 239 are the most widely synthesized isotopes. Plutonium-239 is synthesized via the following reaction using uranium (U) and neutrons (n) via beta decay (β) with neptunium (Np) as an intermediate:


Neutrons from the fission of uranium-235 are captured
Neutron capture
Neutron capture is a kind of nuclear reaction in which an atomic nucleus collides with one or more neutrons and they merge to form a heavier nucleus. Since neutrons have no electric charge they can enter a nucleus more easily than positively charged protons, which are repelled...

 by uranium-238 nuclei to form uranium-239; a beta decay
Beta decay
In nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle is emitted from an atom. There are two types of beta decay: beta minus and beta plus. In the case of beta decay that produces an electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus , while in the case of a...

 converts a neutron into a proton to form Np-239 (half-life 2.36 days) and another beta decay forms plutonium-239. Workers on the Tube Alloys
Tube Alloys
Tube Alloys was the code-name for the British nuclear weapon directorate during World War II, when the development of nuclear weapons was kept at such a high level of secrecy that it had to be referred to by code even in the highest circles of government...

 project had predicted this reaction theoretically in 1940.

Plutonium-238 is synthesized by bombarding uranium-238 with deuterons (D, the nuclei of heavy hydrogen
Hydrogen
Hydrogen is the chemical element with atomic number 1. It is represented by the symbol H. With an average atomic weight of , hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant chemical element, constituting roughly 75% of the Universe's chemical elemental mass. Stars in the main sequence are mainly...

) in the following reaction:


In this process, a deuteron hitting uranium-238 produces two neutrons and neptunium-238, which spontaneously decays by emitting negative beta particles to form plutonium-238.

Decay heat and fission properties


Plutonium isotopes undergo radioactive decay, which produces decay heat
Decay heat
Decay heat is the heat released as a result of radioactive decay. This is when the radiation interacts with materials: the energy of the alpha, beta or gamma radiation is converted into the thermal movement of atoms.-Natural occurrence:...

. Different isotopes produce different amounts of heat per mass. The decay heat is usually listed as watt/kilogram, or milliwatt/gram. In case of larger pieces of plutonium (e.g. a weapon pit) and inadequate heat removal the resulting self-heating may be significant. All isotopes produce weak gamma on decay.
Decay heat of plutonium isotopes
Isotope Decay mode  Half-life
Half-life
Half-life, abbreviated t½, is the period of time it takes for the amount of a substance undergoing decay to decrease by half. The name was originally used to describe a characteristic of unstable atoms , but it may apply to any quantity which follows a set-rate decay.The original term, dating to...

 (years)
Decay heat
Decay heat
Decay heat is the heat released as a result of radioactive decay. This is when the radiation interacts with materials: the energy of the alpha, beta or gamma radiation is converted into the thermal movement of atoms.-Natural occurrence:...

 (W/kg)
Spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission is a form of radioactive decay characteristic of very heavy isotopes. Because the nuclear binding energy reaches a maximum at a nuclear mass greater than about 60 atomic mass units , spontaneous breakdown into smaller nuclei and single particles becomes possible at heavier masses...

 neutrons (1/(g·s))
Comment
Pu-238
Plutonium-238
-External links:**...

alpha to U-234 87.74 560 2600 Very high decay heat. Even in small amounts can cause significant self-heating. Used on its own in radioisotope thermoelectric generator
Radioisotope thermoelectric generator
A radioisotope thermoelectric generator is an electrical generator that obtains its power from radioactive decay. In such a device, the heat released by the decay of a suitable radioactive material is converted into electricity by the Seebeck effect using an array of thermocouples.RTGs can be...

s.
Pu-239
Plutonium-239
Plutonium-239 is an isotope of plutonium. Plutonium-239 is the primary fissile isotope used for the production of nuclear weapons, although uranium-235 has also been used and is currently the secondary isotope. Plutonium-239 is also one of the three main isotopes demonstrated usable as fuel in...

alpha to U-235
Uranium-235
- References :* .* DOE Fundamentals handbook: Nuclear Physics and Reactor theory , .* A piece of U-235 the size of a grain of rice can produce energy equal to that contained in three tons of coal or fourteen barrels of oil. -External links:* * * one of the earliest articles on U-235 for the...

24100 1.9 0.022 The principal fissile isotope in use.
Pu-240
Plutonium-240
Plutonium-240 is an isotope of the metal plutonium formed when plutonium-239 captures a neutron. About 62% to 73% of the time when Pu-239 captures a neutron it undergoes fission; the rest of the time it forms Pu-240. The longer a nuclear fuel element remains in a nuclear reactor the greater the...

alpha to U-236
Uranium-236
- See also :* Depleted uranium* Uranium market* Nuclear reprocessing* United States Enrichment Corporation* Nuclear fuel cycle* Nuclear power-External links:* *...

, spontaneous fission
6560 6.8 910 The principal impurity of the Pu-239 isotope. The plutonium grade is usually listed as percentage of Pu-240. High spontaneous fission hinders use in nuclear weapons.
Pu-241
Plutonium-241
Plutonium-241 is an isotope of plutonium formed when plutonium-240 captures a neutron. Like Pu-239 but unlike 240Pu, 241Pu is fissile, with a neutron absorption cross section about 1/3 greater than 239Pu, and a similar probability of fissioning on neutron absorption, around 73%. In the non-fission...

beta, to Am-241 14.4 4.2 0.049 Decays to americium-241; its buildup presents a radiation hazard in older samples.
Pu-242
Plutonium-242
Pu-242 is one of the isotopes of plutonium, the second longest-lived, with a half-life of 373,300 years.242Pu's halflife is about 15 times as long as Pu-239's halflife; therefore it is 1/15 as radioactive and not one of the larger contributors to nuclear waste radioactivity.242Pu's gamma ray...

alpha to U-238
Uranium-238
Uranium-238 is the most common isotope of uranium found in nature. It is not fissile, but is a fertile material: it can capture a slow neutron and after two beta decays become fissile plutonium-239...

376000 0.1 1700


Americium-241, the decay product of plutonium-241, has half-life of 430 years, 1.2 spontaneous fissions per gram per second, and decay heat of 114 watts per kilogram. As its decay produces highly penetrative gamma rays, its presence in plutonium, determined by the original concentration of plutonium-241 and the sample age, increases the radiation exposure of surrounding structures and personnel.

Compounds and chemistry


At room temperature, pure plutonium is silvery in color but gains a tarnish when oxidized. The element displays four common ionic oxidation state
Oxidation state
In chemistry, the oxidation state is an indicator of the degree of oxidation of an atom in a chemical compound. The formal oxidation state is the hypothetical charge that an atom would have if all bonds to atoms of different elements were 100% ionic. Oxidation states are typically represented by...

s in aqueous solution
Aqueous solution
An aqueous solution is a solution in which the solvent is water. It is usually shown in chemical equations by appending aq to the relevant formula, such as NaCl. The word aqueous means pertaining to, related to, similar to, or dissolved in water...

 and one rare one:
  • Pu(III), as Pu3+ (blue lavender)
  • Pu(IV), as Pu4+ (yellow brown)
  • Pu(V), as PuO2+ (pink?)The PuO2+ ion is unstable in solution and will disproportionate into Pu4+ and PuO22+; the Pu4+ will then oxidize the remaining PuO2+ to PuO22+, being reduced in turn to Pu3+. Thus, aqueous solutions of plutonium tend over time towards a mixture of Pu3+ and PuO22+. UO2+ is unstable for the same reason.
  • Pu(VI), as PuO22+ (pink orange)
  • Pu(VII), as PuO53− (green)–the heptavalent ion is rare


The color shown by plutonium solutions depends on both the oxidation state and the nature of the acid anion. It is the acid anion that influences the degree of complexing
Complex (chemistry)
In chemistry, a coordination complex or metal complex, is an atom or ion , bonded to a surrounding array of molecules or anions, that are in turn known as ligands or complexing agents...

—how atoms connect to a central atom—of the plutonium species.

Metallic plutonium is produced by reacting plutonium tetrafluoride with barium
Barium
Barium is a chemical element with the symbol Ba and atomic number 56. It is the fifth element in Group 2, a soft silvery metallic alkaline earth metal. Barium is never found in nature in its pure form due to its reactivity with air. Its oxide is historically known as baryta but it reacts with...

, calcium
Calcium
Calcium is the chemical element with the symbol Ca and atomic number 20. It has an atomic mass of 40.078 amu. Calcium is a soft gray alkaline earth metal, and is the fifth-most-abundant element by mass in the Earth's crust...

 or lithium
Lithium
Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali metal group of chemical elements. It is represented by the symbol Li, and it has the atomic number 3. Under standard conditions it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly...

 at 1200 °C. It is attacked by acid
Acid
An acid is a substance which reacts with a base. Commonly, acids can be identified as tasting sour, reacting with metals such as calcium, and bases like sodium carbonate. Aqueous acids have a pH of less than 7, where an acid of lower pH is typically stronger, and turn blue litmus paper red...

s, oxygen
Oxygen
Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

, and steam but not by alkalis and dissolves easily in concentrated hydrochloric
Hydrochloric acid
Hydrochloric acid is a solution of hydrogen chloride in water, that is a highly corrosive, strong mineral acid with many industrial uses. It is found naturally in gastric acid....

, hydroiodic and perchloric acid
Perchloric acid
Perchloric acid is the inorganic compound with the formula HClO4. Usually encountered as an aqueous solution, this colourless compound is a strong acid comparable in strength to sulfuric and nitric acids. It is a powerful oxidizer, but its aqueous solutions up to appr. 70% are remarkably inert,...

s. Molten metal must be kept in a vacuum
Vacuum
In everyday usage, vacuum is a volume of space that is essentially empty of matter, such that its gaseous pressure is much less than atmospheric pressure. The word comes from the Latin term for "empty". A perfect vacuum would be one with no particles in it at all, which is impossible to achieve in...

 or an inert atmosphere to avoid reaction with air. At 135 °C the metal will ignite in air and will explode if placed in carbon tetrachloride
Carbon tetrachloride
Carbon tetrachloride, also known by many other names is the organic compound with the formula CCl4. It was formerly widely used in fire extinguishers, as a precursor to refrigerants, and as a cleaning agent...

.

Plutonium is a reactive metal. In moist air or moist argon
Argon
Argon is a chemical element represented by the symbol Ar. Argon has atomic number 18 and is the third element in group 18 of the periodic table . Argon is the third most common gas in the Earth's atmosphere, at 0.93%, making it more common than carbon dioxide...

, the metal oxidizes rapidly, producing a mixture of oxide
Oxide
An oxide is a chemical compound that contains at least one oxygen atom in its chemical formula. Metal oxides typically contain an anion of oxygen in the oxidation state of −2....

s and hydride
Hydride
In chemistry, a hydride is the anion of hydrogen, H−, or, more commonly, a compound in which one or more hydrogen centres have nucleophilic, reducing, or basic properties. In compounds that are regarded as hydrides, hydrogen is bonded to a more electropositive element or group...

s. If the metal is exposed long enough to a limited amount of water vapor, a powdery surface coating of PuO2 is formed. Also formed is plutonium hydride
Plutonium hydride
Plutonium hydride is the chemical compound with the formula PuH2. It is one of two characterised hydrides of plutonium, the other is PuH3. PuH2 is non-stoichiometric with a composition range of PuH2 – PuH2.7. Additionally metastable stoichiometries with an excess of hydrogen can be formed. PuH2...

 but an excess of water vapor forms only PuO2.

With this coating, the metal is pyrophoric
Pyrophoricity
A pyrophoric substance is a substance that will ignite spontaneously in air. Examples are iron sulfide and many reactive metals including uranium, when powdered or sliced thin. Pyrophoric materials are often water-reactive as well and will ignite when they contact water or humid air...

, meaning it can ignite spontaneously, so plutonium metal is usually handled in an inert, dry atmosphere of nitrogen or argon. Oxygen retards the effects of moisture and acts as a passivating
Passivation
Passivation is the process of making a material "passive", and thus less reactive with surrounding air, water, or other gases or liquids. The goal is to inhibit corrosion, whether for structural or cosmetic reasons. Passivation of metals is usually achieved by the deposition of a layer of oxide...

 agent.

Plutonium shows enormous, and reversible, reaction rates with pure hydrogen, forming plutonium hydride
Plutonium hydride
Plutonium hydride is the chemical compound with the formula PuH2. It is one of two characterised hydrides of plutonium, the other is PuH3. PuH2 is non-stoichiometric with a composition range of PuH2 – PuH2.7. Additionally metastable stoichiometries with an excess of hydrogen can be formed. PuH2...

. It also reacts readily with oxygen, forming PuO and PuO2 as well as intermediate oxides; plutonium oxide fills 40% more volume than plutonium metal. It reacts with the halogen
Halogen
The halogens or halogen elements are a series of nonmetal elements from Group 17 IUPAC Style of the periodic table, comprising fluorine , chlorine , bromine , iodine , and astatine...

s, giving rise to compounds such as PuX3 where X can be F
Plutonium(III) fluoride
Plutonium fluoride or plutonium trifluoride is the chemical compound composed of plutonium and fluorine with the formula PuF3. It forms violet crystals...

, Cl
Plutonium(III) chloride
Plutonium chloride is the chemical compound with the formula PuCl3.- Structure :Plutonium atoms in crystalline PuCl3 are 9 coordinate, and the structure is tricapped trigonal prismatic.- Safety :...

, Br or I; PuF4 is also seen. The following oxyhalides are observed: PuOCl, PuOBr and PuOI. It will react with carbon to form PuC, nitrogen to form PuN and silicon
Silicon
Silicon is a chemical element with the symbol Si and atomic number 14. A tetravalent metalloid, it is less reactive than its chemical analog carbon, the nonmetal directly above it in the periodic table, but more reactive than germanium, the metalloid directly below it in the table...

 to form PuSi2.

Crucible
Crucible
A crucible is a container used for metal, glass, and pigment production as well as a number of modern laboratory processes, which can withstand temperatures high enough to melt or otherwise alter its contents...

s used to contain plutonium need to be able to withstand its strongly reducing
Redox
Redox reactions describe all chemical reactions in which atoms have their oxidation state changed....

 properties. Refractory metals
Refractory metals
Refractory metals are a class of metals that are extraordinarily resistant to heat and wear. The expression is mostly used in the context of materials science, metallurgy and engineering. The definition of which elements belong to this group differs...

 such as tantalum
Tantalum
Tantalum is a chemical element with the symbol Ta and atomic number 73. Previously known as tantalium, the name comes from Tantalus, a character in Greek mythology. Tantalum is a rare, hard, blue-gray, lustrous transition metal that is highly corrosion resistant. It is part of the refractory...

 and tungsten
Tungsten
Tungsten , also known as wolfram , is a chemical element with the chemical symbol W and atomic number 74.A hard, rare metal under standard conditions when uncombined, tungsten is found naturally on Earth only in chemical compounds. It was identified as a new element in 1781, and first isolated as...

 along with the more stable oxides, boride
Boride
In chemistry a boride is a chemical compound between boron and a less electronegative element, for example silicon boride . The borides are a very large group of compounds that are generally high melting and are not ionic in nature. Some borides exhibit very useful physical properties. The term...

s, carbide
Carbide
In chemistry, a carbide is a compound composed of carbon and a less electronegative element. Carbides can be generally classified by chemical bonding type as follows: salt-like, covalent compounds, interstitial compounds, and "intermediate" transition metal carbides...

s, nitride
Nitride
In chemistry, a nitride is a compound of nitrogen where nitrogen has a formal oxidation state of −3. Nitrides are a large class of compounds with a wide range of properties and applications....

s and silicide
Silicide
A silicide is a compound that has silicon with more electropositive elements.Silicon is more electropositive than carbon. Silicides are structurally closer to borides than to carbides....

s can tolerate this. Melting in an electric arc furnace
Electric arc furnace
An electric arc furnace is a furnace that heats charged material by means of an electric arc.Arc furnaces range in size from small units of approximately one ton capacity up to about 400 ton units used for secondary steelmaking...

 can be used to produce small ingots of the metal without the need for a crucible.

Cerium
Cerium
Cerium is a chemical element with the symbol Ce and atomic number 58. It is a soft, silvery, ductile metal which easily oxidizes in air. Cerium was named after the dwarf planet . Cerium is the most abundant of the rare earth elements, making up about 0.0046% of the Earth's crust by weight...

 is used as a chemical simulant of plutonium for development of containment, extraction, and other technologies.

Electronic structure


The anomalous behavior of plutonium is caused by its electronic structure. The energy difference between the 6d and 5f subshells is very low. The size of the 5f shell is just enough to allow the electrons to form bonds within the lattice, on the very boundary between localized and bonding behavior. The proximity of energy levels leads to multiple low-energy electron configurations with near equal energy levels. This leads to competing 5fn7s2 and 5fn-17s26d1 configurations, which causes the complexity of its chemical behavior. The highly directional nature of 5f orbitals is responsible for directional covalent bonds in molecules and complexes of plutonium.

Alloys


Plutonium can form alloy
Alloy
An alloy is a mixture or metallic solid solution composed of two or more elements. Complete solid solution alloys give single solid phase microstructure, while partial solutions give two or more phases that may or may not be homogeneous in distribution, depending on thermal history...

s and intermediate compounds with most other metals. Exceptions include lithium
Lithium
Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali metal group of chemical elements. It is represented by the symbol Li, and it has the atomic number 3. Under standard conditions it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly...

, sodium
Sodium
Sodium is a chemical element with the symbol Na and atomic number 11. It is a soft, silvery-white, highly reactive metal and is a member of the alkali metals; its only stable isotope is 23Na. It is an abundant element that exists in numerous minerals, most commonly as sodium chloride...

, potassium
Potassium
Potassium is the chemical element with the symbol K and atomic number 19. Elemental potassium is a soft silvery-white alkali metal that oxidizes rapidly in air and is very reactive with water, generating sufficient heat to ignite the hydrogen emitted in the reaction.Potassium and sodium are...

, rubidium
Rubidium
Rubidium is a chemical element with the symbol Rb and atomic number 37. Rubidium is a soft, silvery-white metallic element of the alkali metal group. Its atomic mass is 85.4678. Elemental rubidium is highly reactive, with properties similar to those of other elements in group 1, such as very rapid...

 and caesium
Caesium
Caesium or cesium is the chemical element with the symbol Cs and atomic number 55. It is a soft, silvery-gold alkali metal with a melting point of 28 °C , which makes it one of only five elemental metals that are liquid at room temperature...

 of the alkali metal
Alkali metal
The alkali metals are a series of chemical elements in the periodic table. In the modern IUPAC nomenclature, the alkali metals comprise the group 1 elements, along with hydrogen. The alkali metals are lithium , sodium , potassium , rubidium , caesium , and francium...

s; and magnesium
Magnesium
Magnesium is a chemical element with the symbol Mg, atomic number 12, and common oxidation number +2. It is an alkaline earth metal and the eighth most abundant element in the Earth's crust and ninth in the known universe as a whole...

, calcium
Calcium
Calcium is the chemical element with the symbol Ca and atomic number 20. It has an atomic mass of 40.078 amu. Calcium is a soft gray alkaline earth metal, and is the fifth-most-abundant element by mass in the Earth's crust...

, strontium
Strontium
Strontium is a chemical element with the symbol Sr and the atomic number 38. An alkaline earth metal, strontium is a soft silver-white or yellowish metallic element that is highly reactive chemically. The metal turns yellow when exposed to air. It occurs naturally in the minerals celestine and...

, and barium
Barium
Barium is a chemical element with the symbol Ba and atomic number 56. It is the fifth element in Group 2, a soft silvery metallic alkaline earth metal. Barium is never found in nature in its pure form due to its reactivity with air. Its oxide is historically known as baryta but it reacts with...

 of the alkaline earth metal
Alkaline earth metal
The alkaline earth metals are a group in the periodic table. In the modern IUPAC nomenclature, the alkaline earth metals are called the group 2 elements. Previously, they were called the Group IIA elements . The alkaline earth metals contain beryllium , magnesium , calcium , strontium , barium and...

s; and europium
Europium
Europium is a chemical element with the symbol Eu and atomic number 63. It is named after the continent of Europe. It is a moderately hard silvery metal which readily oxidizes in air and water...

 and ytterbium
Ytterbium
Ytterbium is a chemical element with the symbol Yb and atomic number 70. A soft silvery metallic element, ytterbium is a rare earth element of the lanthanide series and is found in the minerals gadolinite, monazite, and xenotime. The element is sometimes associated with yttrium or other related...

 of the rare earth metals. Partial exceptions include the refractory metals chromium
Chromium
Chromium is a chemical element which has the symbol Cr and atomic number 24. It is the first element in Group 6. It is a steely-gray, lustrous, hard metal that takes a high polish and has a high melting point. It is also odorless, tasteless, and malleable...

, molybdenum
Molybdenum
Molybdenum , is a Group 6 chemical element with the symbol Mo and atomic number 42. The name is from Neo-Latin Molybdaenum, from Ancient Greek , meaning lead, itself proposed as a loanword from Anatolian Luvian and Lydian languages, since its ores were confused with lead ores...

, niobium
Niobium
Niobium or columbium , is a chemical element with the symbol Nb and atomic number 41. It's a soft, grey, ductile transition metal, which is often found in the pyrochlore mineral, the main commercial source for niobium, and columbite...

, tantalum
Tantalum
Tantalum is a chemical element with the symbol Ta and atomic number 73. Previously known as tantalium, the name comes from Tantalus, a character in Greek mythology. Tantalum is a rare, hard, blue-gray, lustrous transition metal that is highly corrosion resistant. It is part of the refractory...

, and tungsten
Tungsten
Tungsten , also known as wolfram , is a chemical element with the chemical symbol W and atomic number 74.A hard, rare metal under standard conditions when uncombined, tungsten is found naturally on Earth only in chemical compounds. It was identified as a new element in 1781, and first isolated as...

, which are soluble in liquid plutonium, but insoluble or only slightly soluble in solid plutonium. Gallium
Gallium
Gallium is a chemical element that has the symbol Ga and atomic number 31. Elemental gallium does not occur in nature, but as the gallium salt in trace amounts in bauxite and zinc ores. A soft silvery metallic poor metal, elemental gallium is a brittle solid at low temperatures. As it liquefies...

, aluminium
Aluminium
Aluminium or aluminum is a silvery white member of the boron group of chemical elements. It has the symbol Al, and its atomic number is 13. It is not soluble in water under normal circumstances....

, americium
Americium
Americium is a synthetic element that has the symbol Am and atomic number 95. This transuranic element of the actinide series is located in the periodic table below the lanthanide element europium, and thus by analogy was named after another continent, America.Americium was first produced in 1944...

, scandium
Scandium
Scandium is a chemical element with symbol Sc and atomic number 21. A silvery-white metallic transition metal, it has historically been sometimes classified as a rare earth element, together with yttrium and the lanthanoids...

 and cerium
Cerium
Cerium is a chemical element with the symbol Ce and atomic number 58. It is a soft, silvery, ductile metal which easily oxidizes in air. Cerium was named after the dwarf planet . Cerium is the most abundant of the rare earth elements, making up about 0.0046% of the Earth's crust by weight...

 can stabilize the δ phase of plutonium for room temperature. Silicon
Silicon
Silicon is a chemical element with the symbol Si and atomic number 14. A tetravalent metalloid, it is less reactive than its chemical analog carbon, the nonmetal directly above it in the periodic table, but more reactive than germanium, the metalloid directly below it in the table...

, indium
Indium
Indium is a chemical element with the symbol In and atomic number 49. This rare, very soft, malleable and easily fusible post-transition metal is chemically similar to gallium and thallium, and shows the intermediate properties between these two...

, zinc
Zinc
Zinc , or spelter , is a metallic chemical element; it has the symbol Zn and atomic number 30. It is the first element in group 12 of the periodic table. Zinc is, in some respects, chemically similar to magnesium, because its ion is of similar size and its only common oxidation state is +2...

 and zirconium
Zirconium
Zirconium is a chemical element with the symbol Zr and atomic number 40. The name of zirconium is taken from the mineral zircon. Its atomic mass is 91.224. It is a lustrous, grey-white, strong transition metal that resembles titanium...

 allow formation of metastable δ state when rapidly cooled. High amounts of hafnium
Hafnium
Hafnium is a chemical element with the symbol Hf and atomic number 72. A lustrous, silvery gray, tetravalent transition metal, hafnium chemically resembles zirconium and is found in zirconium minerals. Its existence was predicted by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869. Hafnium was the penultimate stable...

, holmium
Holmium
Holmium is a chemical element with the symbol Ho and atomic number 67. Part of the lanthanide series, holmium is a rare earth element. Its oxide was first isolated from rare earth ores in 1878 and the element was named after the city of Stockholm....

 and thallium
Thallium
Thallium is a chemical element with the symbol Tl and atomic number 81. This soft gray poor metal resembles tin but discolors when exposed to air. The two chemists William Crookes and Claude-Auguste Lamy discovered thallium independently in 1861 by the newly developed method of flame spectroscopy...

 also allows retaining some of the δ phase at room temperature. Neptunium
Neptunium
Neptunium is a chemical element with the symbol Np and atomic number 93. A radioactive metal, neptunium is the first transuranic element and belongs to the actinide series. Its most stable isotope, 237Np, is a by-product of nuclear reactors and plutonium production and it can be used as a...

 is the only element that can stabilize the α phase at higher temperatures.

Plutonium alloys can be produced by adding a metal to molten plutonium. If the alloying metal is sufficiently reductive, plutonium can be added in the form of oxides or halides. The δ phase plutonium-gallium and plutonium-aluminium alloys are produced by adding plutonium(III) fluoride
Plutonium(III) fluoride
Plutonium fluoride or plutonium trifluoride is the chemical compound composed of plutonium and fluorine with the formula PuF3. It forms violet crystals...

 to molten gallium or aluminium, which has the advantage of avoiding dealing directly with the highly reactive plutonium metal.
  • Plutonium-gallium
    Plutonium-gallium alloy
    Plutonium-gallium alloy is an alloy of plutonium and gallium, used in nuclear weapon pits – the component of a nuclear weapon where the fission chain reaction is started....

     is used for stabilizing the δ phase of plutonium, avoiding the α-phase and α-δ related issues. Its main use is in pits
    Pit (nuclear weapon)
    The pit is the core of an implosion weapon – the fissile material and any neutron reflector or tamper bonded to it. Some weapons tested during the 1950s used pits made with U-235 alone, or in composite with plutonium, but all-plutonium pits are the smallest in diameter and have been the standard...

     of implosion nuclear weapons.
  • Plutonium-aluminium is an alternative to the Pu-Ga alloy. It was the original element considered for δ phase stabilization, but its tendency to react with the alpha particles and release neutrons reduces its usability for nuclear weapon pits. Plutonium-aluminium alloy can be also used as a component of nuclear fuel
    Nuclear fuel
    Nuclear fuel is a material that can be 'consumed' by fission or fusion to derive nuclear energy. Nuclear fuels are the most dense sources of energy available...

    .
  • Plutonium-gallium-cobalt alloy (PuCoGa5) is an unconventional superconductor
    Unconventional superconductor
    Unconventional superconductors are materials that display superconductivity which does not conform to either the conventional BCS theory or the Nikolay Bogolyubov's theory or its extensions....

    , showing superconductivity below 18.5 kelvin
    Kelvin
    The kelvin is a unit of measurement for temperature. It is one of the seven base units in the International System of Units and is assigned the unit symbol K. The Kelvin scale is an absolute, thermodynamic temperature scale using as its null point absolute zero, the temperature at which all...

    , an order of magnitude higher than the highest between heavy fermion
    Heavy Fermion
    In solid-state physics, heavy fermion materials are a specific type of intermetallic compound, containing elements with 4f or 5f electrons. Electrons, a kind of fermion, found in such materials are sometimes referred to as heavy electrons...

     systems, and has large critical current.
  • Plutonium-zirconium alloy can be used as nuclear fuel
    Nuclear fuel
    Nuclear fuel is a material that can be 'consumed' by fission or fusion to derive nuclear energy. Nuclear fuels are the most dense sources of energy available...

    .
  • Plutonium-cerium and plutonium-cerium-cobalt alloys are used as nuclear fuels.
  • Plutonium-uranium, with about 15–30 mol.% plutonium, can be used as a nuclear fuel for fast breeder reactors. Its pyrophoric nature and high susceptibility to corrosion to the point of self-igniting or disintegrating after exposure to air require alloying with other components. Addition of aluminium, carbon or copper did not improve disintegration rates markedly, zirconium and iron alloys have better corrosion resistance but they disintegrate in several months in air as well. Addition of titanium and/or zirconium significantly increases the melting point of the alloy.
  • Plutonium-uranium-titanium and plutonium-uranium-zirconium were investigated for use as nuclear fuels. The addition of the third element increases corrosion resistance, reduces flammability, and improves ductility, fabricability, strength, and thermal expansion. Plutonium-uranium-molybdenum has the best corrosion resistance, forming a protective film of oxides, but titanium and zirconium are preferred for physics reasons.
  • Thorium-uranium-plutonium was investigated as a nuclear fuel for fast breeder reactors.

Occurrence


Trace amounts of at least two plutonium isotopes (plutonium-239 and 244) can be found in nature. Small traces of plutonium-239, a few parts per trillion, and its decay product
Decay product
In nuclear physics, a decay product is the remaining nuclide left over from radioactive decay. Radioactive decay often involves a sequence of steps...

s are naturally found in some concentrated ores of uranium, such as the natural nuclear fission reactor
Natural nuclear fission reactor
A natural nuclear fission reactor is a uranium deposit where analysis of isotope ratios has shown that self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions have occurred. The existence of this phenomenon was discovered in 1972 at Oklo in Gabon, Africa, by French physicist Francis Perrin. The conditions under...

 in Oklo
Oklo
Oklo is a region near the town of Franceville, in the Haut-Ogooué province of the Central African state of Gabon. Several natural nuclear fission reactors were discovered in the uranium mines in the region in 1972.-History:...

, Gabon
Gabon
Gabon , officially the Gabonese Republic is a state in west central Africa sharing borders with Equatorial Guinea to the northwest, Cameroon to the north, and with the Republic of the Congo curving around the east and south. The Gulf of Guinea, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean is to the west...

. The ratio of plutonium-239 to uranium at the Cigar Lake Mine
Cigar Lake Mine
The Cigar Lake Mine is the largest undeveloped high grade uranium deposit in the world, located in the uranium rich Athabasca Basin of northern Saskatchewan, Canada....

 uranium deposit ranges from to . Even smaller amounts of primordial
Primordial nuclide
In geochemistry and geonuclear physics, primordial nuclides or primordial isotopes are nuclides found on the earth that have existed in their current form since before Earth was formed. Only 288 such nuclides are known...

 plutonium-244 occur naturally due to its relatively long half-life of about 80 million years. These trace amounts of Pu-239 originate in the following fashion: On rare occasions, U-238 undergoes spontaneous fission, and in the process, the nucleus emits one or two free neutrons with some kinetic energy. When one of these neutrons strikes the nucleus of another U-238 atom, it is absorbed by the atom, which becomes U-239. With quite-short half-lives, U-239 decays to neptunium
Neptunium
Neptunium is a chemical element with the symbol Np and atomic number 93. A radioactive metal, neptunium is the first transuranic element and belongs to the actinide series. Its most stable isotope, 237Np, is a by-product of nuclear reactors and plutonium production and it can be used as a...

-239 (Np-239), and then Np-239 decays into Pu-239.

Since the relatively long-lived isotope plutonium-240 occurs in the decay chain of plutonium-244 it should also be present, albeit 10,000 times rarer still. Finally, exceedingly small amounts of plutonium-238, attributed to the incredibly rare double beta decay
Double beta decay
Double beta decay is a radioactive decay process where a nucleus releases two beta rays as a single process.In double-beta decay, two neutrons in the nucleus are converted to protons, and two electrons and two electron antineutrinos are emitted...

 of uranium-238, have been found in natural uranium samples.

Minute traces of plutonium are usually found in the human body due to the 550 atmospheric and underwater nuclear test
Nuclear testing
Nuclear weapons tests are experiments carried out to determine the effectiveness, yield and explosive capability of nuclear weapons. Throughout the twentieth century, most nations that have developed nuclear weapons have tested them...

s that have been carried out, and to a small number of major nuclear accidents. Most atmospheric and underwater nuclear testing was stopped by the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, which was signed and ratified by the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

, the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

, the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

, and other nations. Continued atmospheric nuclear weapons testing since 1963 by non-treaty nations included those by China
China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 (atomic bomb test above the Gobi Desert
Gobi Desert
The Gobi is a large desert region in Asia. It covers parts of northern and northwestern China, and of southern Mongolia. The desert basins of the Gobi are bounded by the Altai Mountains and the grasslands and steppes of Mongolia on the north, by the Hexi Corridor and Tibetan Plateau to the...

 in 1964, hydrogen bomb test in 1967, and follow-on tests), and France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 (tests as recently as the 1980s).

Because it is purposely manufactured for nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors, plutonium-239 is the most abundant isotope of plutonium by far.

It is also hypothetically possible for minute quantities of plutonium to be produced by the natural bombardment of uranium ores with cosmic ray
Cosmic ray
Cosmic rays are energetic charged subatomic particles, originating from outer space. They may produce secondary particles that penetrate the Earth's atmosphere and surface. The term ray is historical as cosmic rays were thought to be electromagnetic radiation...

s.

Discovery


Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi was an Italian-born, naturalized American physicist particularly known for his work on the development of the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, and for his contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics...

 and a team of scientists at the University of Rome
University of Rome La Sapienza
The Sapienza University of Rome, officially Sapienza – Università di Roma, formerly known as Università degli studi di Roma "La Sapienza", is a coeducational, autonomous state university in Rome, Italy...

 reported that they had discovered element 94 in 1934. Fermi called the element hesperium
Hesperium
Hesperium was the name assigned to the element with atomic number 94, now known as plutonium.It was named in Italian Esperio after a Greek name of Italy, Hesperia, "the land of the West"....

and mentioned it in his Nobel Lecture in 1938. The sample was actually a mixture of barium
Barium
Barium is a chemical element with the symbol Ba and atomic number 56. It is the fifth element in Group 2, a soft silvery metallic alkaline earth metal. Barium is never found in nature in its pure form due to its reactivity with air. Its oxide is historically known as baryta but it reacts with...

, krypton
Krypton
Krypton is a chemical element with the symbol Kr and atomic number 36. It is a member of Group 18 and Period 4 elements. A colorless, odorless, tasteless noble gas, krypton occurs in trace amounts in the atmosphere, is isolated by fractionally distilling liquified air, and is often used with other...

, and other elements, but this was not known at the time because nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

 had not been discovered yet.


Plutonium (specifically, plutonium-238) was first produced and isolated on December 14, 1940, and chemically identified on February 23, 1941, by Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg
Glenn T. Seaborg
Glenn Theodore Seaborg was an American scientist who won the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for "discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements", contributed to the discovery and isolation of ten elements, and developed the actinide concept, which led to the current arrangement of the...

, Edwin M. McMillan
Edwin McMillan
Edwin Mattison McMillan was an American physicist and Nobel laureate credited with being the first ever to produce a transuranium element. He shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Glenn Seaborg in 1951....

, J. W. Kennedy
Joseph W. Kennedy
Joseph William Kennedy was an American scientist credited with being a co-discoverer of plutonium along with Glenn T. Seaborg, Edwin McMillan, and Arthur Wahl....

, and A. C. Wahl
Arthur Wahl
Arthur C. Wahl was an American chemist who, as a PhD student of Glenn T. Seaborg at UC Berkeley, first isolated plutonium in February 1941. He also worked on the Manhattan Project.- Further readings :...

 by deuteron bombardment of uranium in the 60 inches (152.4 cm) cyclotron
Cyclotron
In technology, a cyclotron is a type of particle accelerator. In physics, the cyclotron frequency or gyrofrequency is the frequency of a charged particle moving perpendicularly to the direction of a uniform magnetic field, i.e. a magnetic field of constant magnitude and direction...

 at the University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Berkeley
The University of California, Berkeley , is a teaching and research university established in 1868 and located in Berkeley, California, USA...

. In the 1940 experiment, neptunium
Neptunium
Neptunium is a chemical element with the symbol Np and atomic number 93. A radioactive metal, neptunium is the first transuranic element and belongs to the actinide series. Its most stable isotope, 237Np, is a by-product of nuclear reactors and plutonium production and it can be used as a...

-238 was created directly by the bombardment but decayed by beta emission two days later, which indicated the formation of element 94.

A paper documenting the discovery was prepared by the team and sent to the journal Physical Review
Physical Review
Physical Review is an American scientific journal founded in 1893 by Edward Nichols. It publishes original research and scientific and literature reviews on all aspects of physics. It is published by the American Physical Society. The journal is in its third series, and is split in several...

in March 1941. The paper was withdrawn before publication after the discovery that an isotope of the new element (plutonium-239) could undergo nuclear fission in a way that might be useful in an atomic bomb. Publication was delayed until a year after the end of World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 due to security concerns.

Edwin McMillan had recently named the first transuranium element after the planet Neptune
Neptune
Neptune is the eighth and farthest planet from the Sun in the Solar System. Named for the Roman god of the sea, it is the fourth-largest planet by diameter and the third largest by mass. Neptune is 17 times the mass of Earth and is slightly more massive than its near-twin Uranus, which is 15 times...

 and suggested that element 94, being the next element in the series, be named for what was then considered the next planet, Pluto
Pluto
Pluto, formal designation 134340 Pluto, is the second-most-massive known dwarf planet in the Solar System and the tenth-most-massive body observed directly orbiting the Sun...

.This was not the first time somebody suggested that an element be named "plutonium." A decade after barium was discovered, a Cambridge University professor suggested it be renamed to "plutonium" because the element was not (as suggested by the Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 root, barys, it was named for) heavy. He reasoned that, since it was produced by the relatively new technique of electrolysis
Electrolysis
In chemistry and manufacturing, electrolysis is a method of using a direct electric current to drive an otherwise non-spontaneous chemical reaction...

, its name should refer to fire
Fire
Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. Slower oxidative processes like rusting or digestion are not included by this definition....

. Thus he suggested it be named for the Roman god of the underworld, Pluto.
Seaborg originally considered the name "plutium", but later thought that it did not sound as good as "plutonium." He chose the letters "Pu" as a joke, which passed without notice into the periodic table.As one article puts it, referring to information Seaborg gave in a talk: "The obvious choice for the symbol would have been Pl, but facetiously, Seaborg suggested Pu, like the words a child would exclaim, 'Pee-yoo!' when smelling something bad. Seaborg thought that he would receive a great deal of flak over that suggestion, but the naming committee accepted the symbol without a word."
Alternative names considered by Seaborg and others were "ultimium" or "extremium" because of the erroneous belief that they had found the last possible element
Chemical element
A chemical element is a pure chemical substance consisting of one type of atom distinguished by its atomic number, which is the number of protons in its nucleus. Familiar examples of elements include carbon, oxygen, aluminum, iron, copper, gold, mercury, and lead.As of November 2011, 118 elements...

 on the periodic table
Periodic table
The periodic table of the chemical elements is a tabular display of the 118 known chemical elements organized by selected properties of their atomic structures. Elements are presented by increasing atomic number, the number of protons in an atom's atomic nucleus...

.

Early research


The basic chemistry of plutonium was found to resemble uranium after a few months of initial study. Early research was continued at the secret Metallurgical Laboratory
Metallurgical Laboratory
The Metallurgical Laboratory or "Met Lab" at the University of Chicago was part of the World War II–era Manhattan Project, created by the United States to develop an atomic bomb...

 of the University of Chicago
University of Chicago
The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois, USA. It was founded by the American Baptist Education Society with a donation from oil magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller and incorporated in 1890...

. On August 18, 1942, a trace quantity of this element was isolated and measured for the first time. About 50 micrograms of plutonium-239 combined with uranium and fission products was produced and only about 1 microgram was isolated. This procedure enabled chemists to determine the new element's atomic weight.Room 405 of the George Herbert Jones Laboratory
George Herbert Jones Laboratory
The George Herbert Jones Laboratory, at 5747 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, is a facility building of the University of Chicago. Room 405 of the building was named a National Historic Landmark in May 1967....

, where the first isolation of plutonium took place, was named a National Historic Landmark
National Historic Landmark
A National Historic Landmark is a building, site, structure, object, or district, that is officially recognized by the United States government for its historical significance...

 in May 1967.


In November 1943 some plutonium trifluoride was reduced to create the first sample of plutonium metal: a few micrograms of metallic beads. Enough plutonium was produced to make it the first synthetically made element to be visible with the unaided eye.

The nuclear properties of plutonium-239 were also studied; researchers found that when it is hit by a neutron it breaks apart (fissions) by releasing more neutrons and energy. These neutrons can hit other atoms of plutonium-239 and so on in an exponentially fast chain reaction
Nuclear chain reaction
A nuclear chain reaction occurs when one nuclear reaction causes an average of one or more nuclear reactions, thus leading to a self-propagating number of these reactions. The specific nuclear reaction may be the fission of heavy isotopes or the fusion of light isotopes...

. This can result in an explosion large enough to destroy a city if enough of the isotope is concentrated to form a critical mass
Critical mass
A critical mass is the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The critical mass of a fissionable material depends upon its nuclear properties A critical mass is the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The...

.

Production during the Manhattan Project


During World War II the U.S. government established the Manhattan Project
Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was a research and development program, led by the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army...

, which was tasked with developing an atomic bomb. The three primary research and production sites of the project were the plutonium production facility at what is now the Hanford Site
Hanford Site
The Hanford Site is a mostly decommissioned nuclear production complex on the Columbia River in the U.S. state of Washington, operated by the United States federal government. The site has been known by many names, including Hanford Works, Hanford Engineer Works or HEW, Hanford Nuclear Reservation...

, the uranium enrichment facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Oak Ridge is a city in Anderson and Roane counties in the eastern part of the U.S. state of Tennessee, about west of Knoxville. Oak Ridge's population was 27,387 at the 2000 census...

, and the weapons research and design laboratory, now known as Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory is a United States Department of Energy national laboratory, managed and operated by Los Alamos National Security , located in Los Alamos, New Mexico...

.

The first production reactor that made plutonium-239 was the X-10 Graphite Reactor
X-10 Graphite Reactor
The X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, formerly known as the Clinton Pile and X-10 Pile, was the world's second artificial nuclear reactor and was the first reactor designed and built for continuous operation.When President Roosevelt in December 1942...

. It went online in 1943 and was built at a facility in Oak Ridge that later became the Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a multiprogram science and technology national laboratory managed for the United States Department of Energy by UT-Battelle. ORNL is the DOE's largest science and energy laboratory. ORNL is located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, near Knoxville...

.During the Manhattan Project, plutonium was also often referred to as simply "49": the number 4 was for the last digit in 94 (atomic number of plutonium), and 9 was for the last digit in plutonium-239, the weapon-grade fissile isotope used in nuclear bombs.


On April 5, 1944, Emilio Segrè at Los Alamos received the first sample of reactor-produced plutonium from Oak Ridge. Within ten days, he discovered that reactor-bred plutonium had a higher concentration of the isotope plutonium-240 than cyclotron-produced plutonium. Plutonium-240 has a high spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission is a form of radioactive decay characteristic of very heavy isotopes. Because the nuclear binding energy reaches a maximum at a nuclear mass greater than about 60 atomic mass units , spontaneous breakdown into smaller nuclei and single particles becomes possible at heavier masses...

 rate, raising the overall background neutron level of the plutonium sample. The original gun-type
Gun-type fission weapon
Gun-type fission weapons are fission-based nuclear weapons whose design assembles their fissile material into a supercritical mass by the use of the "gun" method: shooting one piece of sub-critical material into another...

 plutonium weapon, code-named "Thin Man
Thin Man nuclear bomb
The "Thin Man" nuclear bomb was a proposed plutonium gun-type nuclear bomb which the United States was developing during the Manhattan Project...

", had to be abandoned as a result—the increased number of spontaneous neutrons meant that nuclear pre-detonation (a fizzle
Fizzle (nuclear test)
In nuclear weapons, a fizzle occurs when the testing of a nuclear bomb fails to meet its expected yield. The reason for the failure can be linked to improper bomb design, poor construction, or lack of expertise. All countries that have had a nuclear weapons testing program have experienced fizzles...

) would be likely.

The entire plutonium weapon design effort at Los Alamos was soon changed to the more complicated implosion device, code-named "Fat Man
Fat Man
"Fat Man" is the codename for the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States on August 9, 1945. It was the second of the only two nuclear weapons to be used in warfare to date , and its detonation caused the third man-made nuclear explosion. The name also refers more...

." With an implosion weapon, a solid (or, in later designs, hollow) sphere of plutonium is compressed to a high density with explosive lenses—a technically more daunting task than the simple gun-type design, but necessary in order to use plutonium for weapons purposes. (Enriched uranium
Enriched uranium
Enriched uranium is a kind of uranium in which the percent composition of uranium-235 has been increased through the process of isotope separation. Natural uranium is 99.284% 238U isotope, with 235U only constituting about 0.711% of its weight...

, by contrast, can be used with either method.)

Construction of the Hanford B Reactor, the first industrial-sized nuclear reactor for the purposes of material production, was completed in March 1945. B Reactor produced the fissile material for the plutonium weapons used during World War II.The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) established B Reactor as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in September 1976.

In August 2008, B Reactor was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark
National Historic Landmark
A National Historic Landmark is a building, site, structure, object, or district, that is officially recognized by the United States government for its historical significance...

.

B, D and F were the initial reactors built at Hanford, and six additional plutonium-producing reactors were built later at the site.

In 2004, a safe
Safe
A safe is a secure lockable box used for securing valuable objects against theft or damage. A safe is usually a hollow cuboid or cylinder, with one face removable or hinged to form a door. The body and door may be cast from metal or formed out of plastic through blow molding...

 was discovered during excavations of a burial trench at the Hanford nuclear site. Inside the safe were various items, including a large glass bottle containing a whitish slurry which was subsequently identified as the oldest sample of weapons-grade plutonium known to exist. Isotope analysis by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is one of the United States Department of Energy National Laboratories, managed by the Department of Energy's Office of Science. The main campus of the laboratory is in Richland, Washington....

 indicated that the plutonium in the bottle was manufactured in the X-10 reactor
X-10 Graphite Reactor
The X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, formerly known as the Clinton Pile and X-10 Pile, was the world's second artificial nuclear reactor and was the first reactor designed and built for continuous operation.When President Roosevelt in December 1942...

 at Oak Ridge
Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Oak Ridge is a city in Anderson and Roane counties in the eastern part of the U.S. state of Tennessee, about west of Knoxville. Oak Ridge's population was 27,387 at the 2000 census...

 during 1944.

Trinity and Fat Man atomic bombs


The first atomic bomb test, codenamed "Trinity"
Trinity test
Trinity was the code name of the first test of a nuclear weapon. This test was conducted by the United States Army on July 16, 1945, in the Jornada del Muerto desert about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, at the new White Sands Proving Ground, which incorporated the Alamogordo Bombing...

 and detonated on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, New Mexico
Alamogordo, New Mexico
Alamogordo is the county seat of Otero County and a city in south-central New Mexico, United States. A desert community lying in the Tularosa Basin, it is bordered on the east by the Sacramento Mountains. It is the nearest city to Holloman Air Force Base. The population was 35,582 as of the 2000...

, used plutonium as its fissile material. The implosion design of "the Gadget", as the Trinity device was code-named, used conventional explosive lenses to compress a sphere of plutonium into a supercritical mass, which was simultaneously showered with neutrons from the "Urchin"
Urchin (detonator)
A modulated neutron initiator is a neutron source capable of producing a burst of neutrons on activation. It is a crucial part of some nuclear weapons, as its role is to "kick-start" the chain reaction at the optimal moment when the configuration is prompt critical. It is also known as an internal...

, an initiator made of polonium
Polonium
Polonium is a chemical element with the symbol Po and atomic number 84, discovered in 1898 by Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie. A rare and highly radioactive element, polonium is chemically similar to bismuth and tellurium, and it occurs in uranium ores. Polonium has been studied for...

 and beryllium
Beryllium
Beryllium is the chemical element with the symbol Be and atomic number 4. It is a divalent element which occurs naturally only in combination with other elements in minerals. Notable gemstones which contain beryllium include beryl and chrysoberyl...

 (neutron source
Neutron source
A Neutron source is a device that emits neutrons. There is a wide variety of different sources, ranging from hand-held radioactive sources to neutron research facilities operating research reactors and spallation sources...

: (α, n) reaction). Together, these ensured a runaway chain reaction and explosion. The overall weapon weighed over 4 tonnes, although it used just 6.2 kg of plutonium in its core. About 20% of the plutonium used in the Trinity weapon underwent fission, resulting in an explosion with an energy equivalent to approximately 20,000 tons of TNT
TNT equivalent
TNT equivalent is a method of quantifying the energy released in explosions. The ton of TNT is a unit of energy equal to 4.184 gigajoules, which is approximately the amount of energy released in the detonation of one ton of TNT...

.The efficiency calculation is based on the fact that 1 kg of plutonium-239 (or uranium-235) fissioning results in an energy release of approximately 17 kt, leading to a rounded estimate of 1.2 kg plutonium actually fissioned to produce the 20 kt yield. On the figure of 1 kg = 17 kt,


An identical design was used in the "Fat Man
Fat Man
"Fat Man" is the codename for the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States on August 9, 1945. It was the second of the only two nuclear weapons to be used in warfare to date , and its detonation caused the third man-made nuclear explosion. The name also refers more...

" atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki
Nagasaki
is the capital and the largest city of Nagasaki Prefecture on the island of Kyushu in Japan. Nagasaki was founded by the Portuguese in the second half of the 16th century on the site of a small fishing village, formerly part of Nishisonogi District...

, Japan
Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

, on August 9, 1945, killing 70,000 people and wounding another 100,000. The "Little Boy
Little Boy
"Little Boy" was the codename of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets of the 393rd Bombardment Squadron, Heavy, of the United States Army Air Forces. It was the first atomic bomb to be used as a weapon...

" bomb dropped on Hiroshima
Hiroshima
is the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture, and the largest city in the Chūgoku region of western Honshu, the largest island of Japan. It became best known as the first city in history to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon when the United States Army Air Forces dropped an atomic bomb on it at 8:15 A.M...

 three days earlier used uranium-235
Uranium-235
- References :* .* DOE Fundamentals handbook: Nuclear Physics and Reactor theory , .* A piece of U-235 the size of a grain of rice can produce energy equal to that contained in three tons of coal or fourteen barrels of oil. -External links:* * * one of the earliest articles on U-235 for the...

, not plutonium. Japan capitulated on August 15 to General Douglas MacArthur
Douglas MacArthur
General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was an American general and field marshal of the Philippine Army. He was a Chief of Staff of the United States Army during the 1930s and played a prominent role in the Pacific theater during World War II. He received the Medal of Honor for his service in the...

. Only after the announcement of the first atomic bombs was the existence of plutonium made public.

Cold War use and waste


Large stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium were built up by both the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 and the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 during the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

. The U.S. reactors at Hanford and the Savannah River Site
Savannah River Site
The Savannah River Site is a nuclear reservation in the United States in the state of South Carolina, located on land in Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell Counties adjacent to the Savannah River, southeast of Augusta, Georgia. The site was built during the 1950s to refine nuclear materials for...

 in South Carolina produced 103 tonnes, and an estimated 170 tonnes of military-grade plutonium was produced in Russia.Much of this plutonium was used to make the fissionable cores of a type of thermonuclear weapon employing the Teller–Ulam design. These so-called 'hydrogen bombs' are a variety of nuclear weapon that use a fission bomb to trigger the nuclear fusion
Nuclear fusion
Nuclear fusion is the process by which two or more atomic nuclei join together, or "fuse", to form a single heavier nucleus. This is usually accompanied by the release or absorption of large quantities of energy...

 of heavy hydrogen
Hydrogen
Hydrogen is the chemical element with atomic number 1. It is represented by the symbol H. With an average atomic weight of , hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant chemical element, constituting roughly 75% of the Universe's chemical elemental mass. Stars in the main sequence are mainly...

 isotopes. Their destructive yield is commonly in the millions of tons of TNT equivalent compared with the thousands of tons of TNT equivalent of fission-only devices.
Each year about 20 tonnes of the element is still produced as a by-product of the nuclear power
Nuclear power
Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provide about 6% of the world's energy and 13–14% of the world's electricity, with the U.S., France, and Japan together accounting for about 50% of nuclear generated electricity...

 industry. As much as 1000 tonnes of plutonium may be in storage with more than 200 tonnes of that either inside or extracted from nuclear weapons.
SIPRI
SIPRI
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute is an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament...

 estimated the world plutonium stockpile
Stockpile
A stockpile is a pile or storage location for bulk materials, forming part of the bulk material handling process.Stockpiles are used in many different areas, such as in a port, refinery or manufacturing facility. The stockpile is normally created by a stacker. A reclaimer is used to recover the...

 in 2007 as about 500 tons, divided equally between weapon and civilian stocks.
Since the end of the Cold War, these stockpiles have become a focus of nuclear proliferation
Nuclear proliferation
Nuclear proliferation is a term now used to describe the spread of nuclear weapons, fissile material, and weapons-applicable nuclear technology and information, to nations which are not recognized as "Nuclear Weapon States" by the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the...

 concerns. In the U.S., some plutonium extracted from dismantled nuclear weapons is melted to form glass logs of plutonium oxide that weigh two tonnes. The glass is made of borosilicates mixed with cadmium
Cadmium
Cadmium is a chemical element with the symbol Cd and atomic number 48. This soft, bluish-white metal is chemically similar to the two other stable metals in group 12, zinc and mercury. Similar to zinc, it prefers oxidation state +2 in most of its compounds and similar to mercury it shows a low...

 and gadolinium
Gadolinium
Gadolinium is a chemical element with the symbol Gd and atomic number 64. It is a silvery-white, malleable and ductile rare-earth metal. It is found in nature only in combined form. Gadolinium was first detected spectroscopically in 1880 by de Marignac who separated its oxide and is credited with...

.Gadolinium zirconium oxide  has been studied because it could hold plutonium for up to 30 million years. These logs are planned to be encased in stainless steel
Stainless steel
In metallurgy, stainless steel, also known as inox steel or inox from French "inoxydable", is defined as a steel alloy with a minimum of 10.5 or 11% chromium content by mass....

 and stored as much as 4 km underground in bore holes that will be back-filled with concrete
Concrete
Concrete is a composite construction material, composed of cement and other cementitious materials such as fly ash and slag cement, aggregate , water and chemical admixtures.The word concrete comes from the Latin word...

. As of 2008, the only facility in the U.S. that is scheduled to store plutonium in this way is the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which is about 100 miles (160.9 km) north-east of Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas is the most populous city in the U.S. state of Nevada and is also the county seat of Clark County, Nevada. Las Vegas is an internationally renowned major resort city for gambling, shopping, and fine dining. The city bills itself as The Entertainment Capital of the World, and is famous...

. Local and state opposition to this plan has delayed efforts to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. In March 2010, the Department of Energy withdrew its license application for the Yucca Mountain repository "with prejudice" and eliminated funding for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which had managed the Yucca Mountain site for 25 years.

Medical experimentation



During and after the end of World War II, scientists working on the Manhattan Project and other nuclear weapons research projects conducted studies of the effects of plutonium on laboratory animals and human subjects. Animal studies found that a few milligrams of plutonium per kilogram of tissue is a lethal dose.

In the case of human subjects, this involved injecting solutions containing (typically) five micrograms of plutonium into hospital patients thought to be either terminally ill, or to have a life expectancy of less than ten years either due to age or chronic disease condition. This was reduced to one microgram in July 1945 after animal studies found that the way plutonium distributed itself in bones was more dangerous than radium
Radium
Radium is a chemical element with atomic number 88, represented by the symbol Ra. Radium is an almost pure-white alkaline earth metal, but it readily oxidizes on exposure to air, becoming black in color. All isotopes of radium are highly radioactive, with the most stable isotope being radium-226,...

.

Eighteen human test subjects were injected with plutonium without informed consent
Informed consent
Informed consent is a phrase often used in law to indicate that the consent a person gives meets certain minimum standards. As a literal matter, in the absence of fraud, it is redundant. An informed consent can be said to have been given based upon a clear appreciation and understanding of the...

. The tests were used to create diagnostic tools to determine the uptake of plutonium in the body in order to develop safety standards for working with plutonium.

The episode is now considered to be a serious breach of medical ethics
Medical ethics
Medical ethics is a system of moral principles that apply values and judgments to the practice of medicine. As a scholarly discipline, medical ethics encompasses its practical application in clinical settings as well as work on its history, philosophy, theology, and sociology.-History:Historically,...

 and of the Hippocratic Oath
Hippocratic Oath
The Hippocratic Oath is an oath historically taken by physicians and other healthcare professionals swearing to practice medicine ethically. It is widely believed to have been written by Hippocrates, often regarded as the father of western medicine, or by one of his students. The oath is written in...

. More sympathetic commentators have noted that while it was definitely a breach in trust and ethics, "the effects of the plutonium injections were not as damaging to the subjects as the early news stories painted, nor were they so inconsequential as many scientists, then and now, believe."

Explosives



The isotope plutonium-239 is a key fissile component in nuclear weapon
Nuclear weapon
A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission or a combination of fission and fusion. Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter. The first fission bomb test released the same amount...

s, due to its ease of fission and availability. Encasing the bomb's plutonium pit in a tamper
Nuclear weapon design
Nuclear weapon designs are physical, chemical, and engineering arrangements that cause the physics package of a nuclear weapon to detonate. There are three basic design types...

 (an optional layer of dense material) decreases the amount of plutonium needed to reach critical mass by reflecting escaping neutrons
Neutron reflector
A neutron reflector is any material that reflects neutrons. This refers to elastic scattering rather than to a specular reflection. The material may be graphite, beryllium, steel, and tungsten carbide, or other materials...

 back into the plutonium core. This reduces the amount of plutonium needed to reach criticality from 16 kg to 10 kg, which is a sphere with a diameter of about 10 centimetres (4 in). This critical mass is about a third of that for uranium-235.

The "Fat Man
Fat Man
"Fat Man" is the codename for the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States on August 9, 1945. It was the second of the only two nuclear weapons to be used in warfare to date , and its detonation caused the third man-made nuclear explosion. The name also refers more...

"-type plutonium bombs produced during the Manhattan Project
Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was a research and development program, led by the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army...

 used explosive compression of plutonium to obtain significantly higher densities than normal, combined with a central neutron source to begin the reaction and increase efficiency. Thus only 6.2 kg of plutonium was needed for an explosive yield
Nuclear weapon yield
The explosive yield of a nuclear weapon is the amount of energy discharged when a nuclear weapon is detonated, expressed usually in the equivalent mass of trinitrotoluene , either in kilotons or megatons , but sometimes also in terajoules...

 equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT. (See also Nuclear weapon design
Nuclear weapon design
Nuclear weapon designs are physical, chemical, and engineering arrangements that cause the physics package of a nuclear weapon to detonate. There are three basic design types...

.) Hypothetically, as little as 4 kg of plutonium—and maybe even less—could be used to make a single atomic bomb using very sophisticated assembly designs.

Mixed oxide fuel


Spent nuclear fuel
Spent nuclear fuel
Spent nuclear fuel, occasionally called used nuclear fuel, is nuclear fuel that has been irradiated in a nuclear reactor...

 from normal light water reactor
Light water reactor
The light water reactor is a type of thermal reactor that uses normal water as its coolant and neutron moderator. Thermal reactors are the most common type of nuclear reactor, and light water reactors are the most common type of thermal reactor...

s contains plutonium, but it is a mixture of plutonium-242, 240, 239 and 238. The mixture is not sufficiently enriched for efficient nuclear weapons, but can be used once as MOX fuel
MOX fuel
Mixed oxide fuel, commonly referred to as MOX fuel, is nuclear fuel that contains more than one oxide of fissile material. MOX fuel contains plutonium blended with natural uranium, reprocessed uranium, or depleted uranium. MOX fuel is an alternative to the low-enriched uranium fuel used in the...

. Accidental neutron capture
Neutron capture
Neutron capture is a kind of nuclear reaction in which an atomic nucleus collides with one or more neutrons and they merge to form a heavier nucleus. Since neutrons have no electric charge they can enter a nucleus more easily than positively charged protons, which are repelled...

 causes the amount of plutonium-242 and 240 to grow each time the plutonium is irradiated in a reactor with low-speed "thermal" neutrons, so that after the second cycle, the Plutonium can only be consumed by fast neutron reactor
Fast neutron reactor
A fast neutron reactor or simply a fast reactor is a category of nuclear reactor in which the fission chain reaction is sustained by fast neutrons...

s. If fast neutron reactors are not available (the normal case), excess Plutonium is usually discarded, and forms the longest-lived component of nuclear waste. The desire to consume this Plutonium and other transuranic fuels and reduce the radiotoxicity of the waste is the usual reason nuclear engineers give to make fast neutron reactors.

The most common chemical process, PUREX
PUREX
PUREX is an acronym standing for Plutonium - URanium EXtraction — de facto standard aqueous nuclear reprocessing method for the recovery of uranium and plutonium from used nuclear fuel. It is based on liquid-liquid extraction ion-exchange.The PUREX process was invented by Herbert H. Anderson and...

 (Plutonium–URanium EXtraction) reprocesses
Nuclear reprocessing
Nuclear reprocessing technology was developed to chemically separate and recover fissionable plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel. Reprocessing serves multiple purposes, whose relative importance has changed over time. Originally reprocessing was used solely to extract plutonium for producing...

 spent nuclear fuel
Spent nuclear fuel
Spent nuclear fuel, occasionally called used nuclear fuel, is nuclear fuel that has been irradiated in a nuclear reactor...

 to extract plutonium and uranium which can be used to form a mixed oxide "MOX fuel
MOX fuel
Mixed oxide fuel, commonly referred to as MOX fuel, is nuclear fuel that contains more than one oxide of fissile material. MOX fuel contains plutonium blended with natural uranium, reprocessed uranium, or depleted uranium. MOX fuel is an alternative to the low-enriched uranium fuel used in the...

" for reuse in nuclear reactors. Weapons grade plutonium can be added to the fuel mix. MOX fuel is used in light water reactor
Light water reactor
The light water reactor is a type of thermal reactor that uses normal water as its coolant and neutron moderator. Thermal reactors are the most common type of nuclear reactor, and light water reactors are the most common type of thermal reactor...

s and consists of 60 kg of plutonium per tonne of fuel; after four years, three-quarters of the plutonium is burned (turned into other elements). Breeder reactor
Breeder reactor
A breeder reactor is a nuclear reactor capable of generating more fissile material than it consumes because its neutron economy is high enough to breed fissile from fertile material like uranium-238 or thorium-232. Breeders were at first considered superior because of their superior fuel economy...

s are specifically designed to create more fissionable material than they consume.

MOX fuel has been in use since the 1980s and is widely used in Europe. In September 2000, the United States and the Russian Federation signed a Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement by which each agreed to dispose of 34 tonnes of weapon grade plutonium. The U.S. Department of Energy plans to dispose of 34 tonnes of weapon grade plutonium in the United States before the end of 2019 by converting the plutonium to a MOX fuel to be used in commercial nuclear power reactors.

MOX fuel improves total burnup. A fuel rod is reprocessed after three years of use to remove waste products, which by then account for 3% of the total weight of the rods. Any uranium or plutonium isotopes produced during those three years are left and the rod goes back into production.Breakdown of plutonium in a spent nuclear fuel rod: plutonium-239 (~58%), 240 (24%), 241 (11%), 242 (5%), and 238 (2%). The presence of up to 1% gallium
Gallium
Gallium is a chemical element that has the symbol Ga and atomic number 31. Elemental gallium does not occur in nature, but as the gallium salt in trace amounts in bauxite and zinc ores. A soft silvery metallic poor metal, elemental gallium is a brittle solid at low temperatures. As it liquefies...

 per mass in weapon grade plutonium alloy
Plutonium-gallium alloy
Plutonium-gallium alloy is an alloy of plutonium and gallium, used in nuclear weapon pits – the component of a nuclear weapon where the fission chain reaction is started....

 has the potential to interfere with long-term operation of a light water reactor
Light water reactor
The light water reactor is a type of thermal reactor that uses normal water as its coolant and neutron moderator. Thermal reactors are the most common type of nuclear reactor, and light water reactors are the most common type of thermal reactor...

.

Plutonium recovered from spent reactor fuel poses a less significant proliferation
Nuclear proliferation
Nuclear proliferation is a term now used to describe the spread of nuclear weapons, fissile material, and weapons-applicable nuclear technology and information, to nations which are not recognized as "Nuclear Weapon States" by the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the...

 hazard, because of excessive contamination with non-fissile plutonium-240
Plutonium-240
Plutonium-240 is an isotope of the metal plutonium formed when plutonium-239 captures a neutron. About 62% to 73% of the time when Pu-239 captures a neutron it undergoes fission; the rest of the time it forms Pu-240. The longer a nuclear fuel element remains in a nuclear reactor the greater the...

 and plutonium-242
Plutonium-242
Pu-242 is one of the isotopes of plutonium, the second longest-lived, with a half-life of 373,300 years.242Pu's halflife is about 15 times as long as Pu-239's halflife; therefore it is 1/15 as radioactive and not one of the larger contributors to nuclear waste radioactivity.242Pu's gamma ray...

. Separation of the isotopes is not feasible. A dedicated reactor operating on very low burnup
Burnup
In nuclear power technology, burnup is a measure of how much energy is extracted from a primary nuclear fuel source...

 (hence minimal exposure of newly-formed Pu-239 to additional neutrons which causes it to be transformed to heavier isotopes of plutonium) is generally required to produce material suitable for use in efficient nuclear weapons. While 'weapons-grade' plutonium is defined to contain at least 92% plutonium-239 (of the total plutonium), the United States have managed to detonate an under-20Kt device using plutonium believed to contain only about 85% plutonium-239, so called 'fuel-grade' plutonium. The 'reactor grade' plutonium produced by a regular LWR burnup cycle typically contains less than 60% Pu-239, with up to 30% parasitic Pu-240/Pu-242, and 10-15% fissile Pu-241. It's unknown if a device using plutonium obtained from reprocessed civil nuclear waste can be detonated, however such a device could hypothetically fizzle
Fizzle (nuclear test)
In nuclear weapons, a fizzle occurs when the testing of a nuclear bomb fails to meet its expected yield. The reason for the failure can be linked to improper bomb design, poor construction, or lack of expertise. All countries that have had a nuclear weapons testing program have experienced fizzles...

 and spread radioactive materials over a large urban area. The IAEA conservatively classifies plutonium of all isotopic vectors as "direct-use" material, that is, "nuclear material that can be used for the manufacture of nuclear explosives components without transmutation or further enrichment".

241Am
Americium
Americium is a synthetic element that has the symbol Am and atomic number 95. This transuranic element of the actinide series is located in the periodic table below the lanthanide element europium, and thus by analogy was named after another continent, America.Americium was first produced in 1944...

 has recently been suggested for use as a denaturing agent in plutonium reactor fuel rods to further limit its proliferation potential.

Power and heat source



The isotope plutonium-238
Plutonium-238
-External links:**...

 has a half-life of 87.74 years. It emits a large amount of thermal energy
Thermal energy
Thermal energy is the part of the total internal energy of a thermodynamic system or sample of matter that results in the system's temperature....

 with low levels of both gamma
Gamma
Gamma is the third letter of the Greek alphabet. In the system of Greek numerals it has a value of 3. It was derived from the Phoenician letter Gimel . Letters that arose from Gamma include the Roman C and G and the Cyrillic letters Ge Г and Ghe Ґ.-Greek:In Ancient Greek, gamma represented a...

 rays/particles and spontaneous neutron
Spontaneous fission
Spontaneous fission is a form of radioactive decay characteristic of very heavy isotopes. Because the nuclear binding energy reaches a maximum at a nuclear mass greater than about 60 atomic mass units , spontaneous breakdown into smaller nuclei and single particles becomes possible at heavier masses...

 rays/particles. Being an alpha emitter, it combines high energy radiation with low penetration and thereby requires minimal shielding. A sheet of paper can be used to shield against the alpha particles emitted by plutonium-238 while one kilogram
Kilogram
The kilogram or kilogramme , also known as the kilo, is the base unit of mass in the International System of Units and is defined as being equal to the mass of the International Prototype Kilogram , which is almost exactly equal to the mass of one liter of water...

 of the isotope can generate about 570 watts of heat.

These characteristics make it well-suited for electrical power generation for devices which must function without direct maintenance for timescales approximating a human lifetime. It is therefore used in radioisotope thermoelectric generator
Radioisotope thermoelectric generator
A radioisotope thermoelectric generator is an electrical generator that obtains its power from radioactive decay. In such a device, the heat released by the decay of a suitable radioactive material is converted into electricity by the Seebeck effect using an array of thermocouples.RTGs can be...

s and radioisotope heater unit
Radioisotope heater unit
Radioisotope heater units are small devices that provide heat through radioactive decay. They are similar to tiny radioisotope thermoelectric generators , and normally provide about one watt of heat each, derived from the decay of a few grams of plutonium 238, although other radioactive isotopes...

s such as those in the Cassini, Voyager
Voyager program
The Voyager program is a U.S program that launched two unmanned space missions, scientific probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They were launched in 1977 to take advantage of a favorable planetary alignment of the late 1970s...

 and New Horizons
New Horizons
New Horizons is a NASA robotic spacecraft mission currently en route to the dwarf planet Pluto. It is expected to be the first spacecraft to fly by and study Pluto and its moons, Charon, Nix, Hydra and S/2011 P 1. Its estimated arrival date at the Pluto-Charon system is July 14th, 2015...

 space probes.

The twin Voyager spacecraft were launched in 1977 with each containing a 500 watt plutonium power source. Over 30 years later each source is still producing about 300 watts which allows limited operation of each spacecraft. An earlier version of the same technology powered five Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Packages, starting with Apollo 12 in 1969.

Plutonium-238 has also been used successfully to power artificial heart pacemaker
Artificial pacemaker
A pacemaker is a medical device that uses electrical impulses, delivered by electrodes contacting the heart muscles, to regulate the beating of the heart...

s, to reduce the risk of repeated surgery. It has been largely replaced by lithium
Lithium
Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali metal group of chemical elements. It is represented by the symbol Li, and it has the atomic number 3. Under standard conditions it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly...

-based primary cell
Primary cell
A primary cell is any kind of battery in which the electrochemical reaction is not reversible, rendering the cell non-rechargeable. A common example of a primary cell is the disposable battery. Unlike a secondary cell, the reaction cannot be reversed by running a current into the cell; the chemical...

s, but as of 2003 there were somewhere between 50 and 100 plutonium-powered pacemakers still implanted and functioning in living patients. Plutonium-238 was studied as way to provide supplemental heat to scuba diving
Scuba diving
Scuba diving is a form of underwater diving in which a diver uses a scuba set to breathe underwater....

. Plutonium-238 mixed with beryllium is used to generate neutrons for research purposes.

Toxicity


Isotopes and compounds of plutonium are radioactive and accumulate in bone marrow
Bone marrow
Bone marrow is the flexible tissue found in the interior of bones. In humans, bone marrow in large bones produces new blood cells. On average, bone marrow constitutes 4% of the total body mass of humans; in adults weighing 65 kg , bone marrow accounts for approximately 2.6 kg...

. Contamination by plutonium oxide has resulted from a number of nuclear disasters and radioactive incidents including military nuclear accidents where nuclear weapons have burned. Studies of the negligible effects of these smaller releases, as well as of the widespread radiation poisoning sickness and death following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
During the final stages of World War II in 1945, the United States conducted two atomic bombings against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the first on August 6, 1945, and the second on August 9, 1945. These two events are the only use of nuclear weapons in war to date.For six months...

, have provided considerable information regarding the dangers, symptoms and prognosis of Radiation poisoning
Radiation poisoning
Acute radiation syndrome also known as radiation poisoning, radiation sickness or radiation toxicity, is a constellation of health effects which occur within several months of exposure to high amounts of ionizing radiation...

.

During the decay of plutonium, three types of radiation are released—alpha, beta, and gamma. Alpha radiation can travel only a short distance and cannot travel through the outer, dead layer of human skin. Beta radiation can penetrate human skin, but cannot go all the way through the body. Gamma radiation can go all the way through the body. Alpha, beta, and gamma radiation are all forms of ionizing radiation
Ionizing radiation
Ionizing radiation is radiation composed of particles that individually have sufficient energy to remove an electron from an atom or molecule. This ionization produces free radicals, which are atoms or molecules containing unpaired electrons...

. Either acute or longer-term exposure carries a danger of unfavorable health outcomes including radiation sickness
Radiation Sickness
Radiation Sickness is a VHS by the thrash metal band Nuclear Assault. The video is a recording of a concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, London in 1988. It was released in 1991...

, cancer
Cancer
Cancer , known medically as a malignant neoplasm, is a large group of different diseases, all involving unregulated cell growth. In cancer, cells divide and grow uncontrollably, forming malignant tumors, and invade nearby parts of the body. The cancer may also spread to more distant parts of the...

, and death. The danger increases with the amount of exposure.

Even though alpha radiation cannot penetrate the skin, ingested or inhaled plutonium does irradiate internal organs. The skeleton
Skeleton
The skeleton is the body part that forms the supporting structure of an organism. There are two different skeletal types: the exoskeleton, which is the stable outer shell of an organism, and the endoskeleton, which forms the support structure inside the body.In a figurative sense, skeleton can...

, where plutonium is absorbed, and the liver
Liver
The liver is a vital organ present in vertebrates and some other animals. It has a wide range of functions, including detoxification, protein synthesis, and production of biochemicals necessary for digestion...

, where it collects and becomes concentrated, are at risk. Plutonium is not absorbed into the body efficiently when ingested; only 0.04% of plutonium oxide is absorbed after ingestion. Plutonium absorbed by the body is excreted very slowly, with a biological half-life
Biological half-life
The biological half-life or elimination half-life of a substance is the time it takes for a substance to lose half of its pharmacologic, physiologic, or radiologic activity, as per the MeSH definition...

 of 200 years. Plutonium passes only slowly through cell membranes and intestinal boundaries, so absorption by ingestion and incorporation into bone structure proceeds very slowly.

Plutonium is more dangerous when inhaled than when ingested. The risk of lung cancer
Lung cancer
Lung cancer is a disease characterized by uncontrolled cell growth in tissues of the lung. If left untreated, this growth can spread beyond the lung in a process called metastasis into nearby tissue and, eventually, into other parts of the body. Most cancers that start in lung, known as primary...

 increases once the total radiation dose equivalent
Equivalent dose
The equivalent absorbed radiation dose, usually shortened to equivalent dose, is a computed average measure of the radiation absorbed by a fixed mass of biological tissue, that attempts to account for the different biological damage potential of different types of ionizing radiation...

 of inhaled plutonium exceeds 400 mSv
Sievert
The sievert is the International System of Units SI derived unit of dose equivalent radiation. It attempts to quantitatively evaluate the biological effects of ionizing radiation as opposed to just the absorbed dose of radiation energy, which is measured in gray...

. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the lifetime cancer risk from inhaling 5,000 plutonium particles, each about 3 microns wide, to be 1% over the background U.S. average. Ingestion or inhalation of large amounts may cause acute radiation poisoning
Radiation poisoning
Acute radiation syndrome also known as radiation poisoning, radiation sickness or radiation toxicity, is a constellation of health effects which occur within several months of exposure to high amounts of ionizing radiation...

 and death; no human is known to have died because of inhaling or ingesting plutonium, and many people have measurable amounts of plutonium in their bodies.

The "hot particle
Hot particle
A hot particle is a small, highly radioactive object, with significant content of radionuclides. Because radioactivity can be inherent to a substance or induced, and there are many initial sources of radioactivity, hot particles can originate from a multitude of sources.- Attributes :Hot particles...

" theory in which a particle of plutonium dust radiates a localized spot of lung tissue has been tested and found false—such particles are more mobile than originally thought and toxicity is not measurably increased due to particulate form.

However, when inhaled, plutonium can pass into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, plutonium moves throughout the body and into the bones, liver, or other body organs. Plutonium that reaches body organs generally stays in the body for decades and continues to expose the surrounding tissue to radiation and thus may cause cancer.

A commonly cited quote by Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader is an American political activist, as well as an author, lecturer, and attorney. Areas of particular concern to Nader include consumer protection, humanitarianism, environmentalism, and democratic government....

, states that a pound of plutonium dust spread into the atmosphere would be enough to kill 8 billion people. However, the math shows that one pound of plutonium could kill no more than 2 million people by inhalation. This makes the toxicity of plutonium roughly equivalent with that of nerve gas.

Several populations of people who have been exposed to plutonium dust (e.g. people living down-wind of Nevada test sites, Hiroshima survivors, nuclear facility workers, and "terminally ill" patients injected with Pu in 1945–46 to study Pu metabolism) have been carefully followed and analyzed. These studies generally do not show especially high plutonium toxicity or plutonium-induced cancer results. "There were about 25 workers from Los Alamos National Laboratory who inhaled a considerable amount of plutonium dust during the 1940's; according to the hot-particle theory, each of them has a 99.5% chance of being dead from lung cancer by now, but there has not been a single lung cancer among them."

Plutonium has a metallic taste.

Criticality potential



Toxicity issues aside, care must be taken to avoid the accumulation of amounts of plutonium which approach critical mass, particularly because plutonium's critical mass is only a third of that of uranium-235. A critical mass of plutonium emits lethal amounts of neutrons and gamma ray
Gamma ray
Gamma radiation, also known as gamma rays or hyphenated as gamma-rays and denoted as γ, is electromagnetic radiation of high frequency . Gamma rays are usually naturally produced on Earth by decay of high energy states in atomic nuclei...

s. Plutonium in solution is more likely to form a critical mass than the solid form due to moderation
Neutron moderator
In nuclear engineering, a neutron moderator is a medium that reduces the speed of fast neutrons, thereby turning them into thermal neutrons capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction involving uranium-235....

 by the hydrogen in water.

Criticality accident
Criticality accident
A criticality accident, sometimes referred to as an excursion or a power excursion, is an accidental increase of nuclear chain reactions in a fissile material, such as enriched uranium or plutonium...

s have occurred in the past, some of them with lethal consequences. Careless handling of tungsten carbide
Tungsten carbide
Tungsten carbide is an inorganic chemical compound containing equal parts of tungsten and carbon atoms. Colloquially, tungsten carbide is often simply called carbide. In its most basic form, it is a fine gray powder, but it can be pressed and formed into shapes for use in industrial machinery,...

 bricks around a 6.2 kg plutonium sphere resulted in a fatal dose of radiation at Los Alamos
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory is a United States Department of Energy national laboratory, managed and operated by Los Alamos National Security , located in Los Alamos, New Mexico...

 on August 21, 1945, when scientist Harry K. Daghlian, Jr.
Harry K. Daghlian, Jr.
Haroutune Krikor Daghlian, Jr. was an Armenian-American physicist with the Manhattan Project who accidentally irradiated himself on August 21, 1945, during a critical mass experiment at the remote Omega Site facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, resulting in his death 25 days...

 received a dose estimated to be 5.1 Sievert
Sievert
The sievert is the International System of Units SI derived unit of dose equivalent radiation. It attempts to quantitatively evaluate the biological effects of ionizing radiation as opposed to just the absorbed dose of radiation energy, which is measured in gray...

 (510 rems) and died 25 days later. Nine months later, another Los Alamos scientist, Louis Slotin
Louis Slotin
Louis Alexander Slotin was a Canadian physicist and chemist who took part in the Manhattan Project, the secret US program during World War II that developed the atomic bomb....

, died from a similar accident involving a beryllium reflector and the same plutonium core (the so-called "demon core
Demon core
The Demon core was the nickname given to a subcritical mass of plutonium that accidentally went briefly critical in two separate accidents at the Los Alamos laboratory in 1945 and 1946. Each incident resulted in the acute radiation poisoning and subsequent death of a scientist...

") that had previously claimed the life of Daghlian. These incidents were fictionalized in the 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy
Fat Man and Little Boy
Fat Man and Little Boy is a 1989 film that reenacts the Manhattan Project, the secret Allied endeavor to develop the first nuclear weapons during World War II. The film is named after the nuclear weapons known by the code names "Fat Man" and "Little Boy". The code names can be taken for joking...

.

In December 1958, during a process of purifying plutonium at Los Alamos, a critical mass was formed in a mixing vessel, which resulted in the death of a chemical operator named Cecil Kelley
Cecil Kelley criticality accident
The Cecil Kelley criticality accident was a nuclear accident that took place on December 30, 1958, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the United States...

. Other nuclear accidents
Nuclear and radiation accidents
A nuclear and radiation accident is defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as "an event that has led to significant consequences to people, the environment or the facility...

 have occurred in the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

, Japan
Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

, the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 and many other countries.

Flammability


Metallic plutonium is a fire hazard, especially if the material is finely divided. In a moist environment, plutonium forms hydrides on its surface, which are pyrophoric
Pyrophoricity
A pyrophoric substance is a substance that will ignite spontaneously in air. Examples are iron sulfide and many reactive metals including uranium, when powdered or sliced thin. Pyrophoric materials are often water-reactive as well and will ignite when they contact water or humid air...

 and may ignite in air at room temperature. Plutonium expands up to 70% in volume as it oxidizes and thus may break its container. The radioactivity of the burning material is an additional hazard. Magnesium oxide
Magnesium oxide
Magnesium oxide , or magnesia, is a white hygroscopic solid mineral that occurs naturally as periclase and is a source of magnesium . It has an empirical formula of and consists of a lattice of Mg2+ ions and O2– ions held together by ionic bonds...

 sand is probably the most effective material for extinguishing a plutonium fire. It cools the burning material, acting as a heat sink
Heat sink
A heat sink is a term for a component or assembly that transfers heat generated within a solid material to a fluid medium, such as air or a liquid. Examples of heat sinks are the heat exchangers used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems and the radiator in a car...

, and also blocks off oxygen. Special precautions are necessary to store or handle plutonium in any form; generally a dry inert gas
Inert gas
An inert gas is a non-reactive gas used during chemical synthesis, chemical analysis, or preservation of reactive materials. Inert gases are selected for specific settings for which they are functionally inert since the cost of the gas and the cost of purifying the gas are usually a consideration...

 atmosphere is required.There was a major plutonium-initiated fire at the Rocky Flats Plant
Rocky Flats Plant
The Rocky Flats Plant was a United States nuclear weapons production facility near Denver, Colorado that operated from 1952 to 1992. It was under the control of the United States Atomic Energy Commission until 1977, when it was replaced by the Department of Energy .-1950s:Following World War II,...

 near Boulder
Boulder, Colorado
Boulder is the county seat and most populous city of Boulder County and the 11th most populous city in the U.S. state of Colorado. Boulder is located at the base of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of...

, Colorado
Colorado
Colorado is a U.S. state that encompasses much of the Rocky Mountains as well as the northeastern portion of the Colorado Plateau and the western edge of the Great Plains...

 in 1969.

See also



  • Nuclear engineering
    Nuclear engineering
    Nuclear engineering is the branch of engineering concerned with the application of the breakdown as well as the fusion of atomic nuclei and/or the application of other sub-atomic physics, based on the principles of nuclear physics...

  • Nuclear fuel cycle
    Nuclear fuel cycle
    The nuclear fuel cycle, also called nuclear fuel chain, is the progression of nuclear fuel through a series of differing stages. It consists of steps in the front end, which are the preparation of the fuel, steps in the service period in which the fuel is used during reactor operation, and steps in...

  • Nuclear physics
    Nuclear physics
    Nuclear physics is the field of physics that studies the building blocks and interactions of atomic nuclei. The most commonly known applications of nuclear physics are nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons technology, but the research has provided application in many fields, including those...


External links


  • Chemistry in its element podcast (MP3) from the Royal Society of Chemistry
    Royal Society of Chemistry
    The Royal Society of Chemistry is a learned society in the United Kingdom with the goal of "advancing the chemical sciences." It was formed in 1980 from the merger of the Chemical Society, the Royal Institute of Chemistry, the Faraday Society and the Society for Analytical Chemistry with a new...

    's Chemistry World
    Chemistry World
    Chemistry World is a monthly chemistry news magazine published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The magazine addresses current events in world of chemistry including research, international business news and government policy as it affects the chemical science community, plus the best product...

    : Plutonium