Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Plutonium is a radioactive, metallic, chemical element. It has the symbol Pu and the atomic number 94. Its atomic weight is 244.06, its density 19,816 kg/m3. It is the element used in most modern nuclear weapons. The most important isotope of plutonium is 239Pu, with a half-life of 24,200 years.
Plutonium is silvery in pure form, but has a yellow tarnish when oxidized. Peculiarly, the metal goes through phases of contraction as its temperature is increased.
- Pu3+ (blue lavender)
- Pu4+ (yellow brown)
- PuO2+ (pink orange)
- PuO+ (thought to be pink; this ion is unstable in solution and will disproportionate into Pu4+ and PuO2+; the Pu4+ will then oxidize the remaining PuO+ to PuO2+, being reduced in turn to Pu3+. Thus, aqueous solutions of plutonium tend over time towards a mixture of Pu3+ and PuO2+.)
The isotope Plutonium-239 is a key fissile component in modern nuclear weapons, due to its ease of fissioning and availability. The critical mass for an unreflected sphere of plutonium is 16 kg, but through the use of a neutron reflecting tamper the pit of plutonium in a fission bomb is reduced to 10 kg, which is a sphere with a diameter of 10 cm. Complete detonation of plutonium will produce an explosion of 20 kiloton per kilogram. (See also Nuclear_weapon_design#Enriched_materials.)
The plutonium isotope 238Pu is an alpha emitter with a half life of 87 years. These characteristics make it well suited for electrical power generation for devices which must function without direct maintenance for timescales approximating a human life time. It is therefore used in RTGs such as those powering the Galileo and Cassini space probes; earlier versions of the same technology powered seismic experiments on the Apollo Moon missions.
238Pu has been used successfully to power artificial heart pacemakers, to reduce the risk of repeated surgery. It has been largely replaced by lithium-based batteries recharged by induction, but as of 2003 there were somewhere between 50 and 100 plutonium-powered pacemakers still implanted and functioning in living patients.
Plutonium was discovered in 1940 by Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Edwin M. McMillan, J. W. Kennedy , and A. C. Wahl by deuteron bombardment of uranium in the 60-inch cyclotron of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, but the discovery was kept secret. It was named after the planet Pluto, having been discovered directly after neptunium (which itself was one higher on the periodic table than uranium), by analogy with the ordering of the planets in the solar system. During the Manhattan Project, large reactors were set up in Hanford, Washington for the production of plutonium, which was used in two of the first atomic bombs (the first was tested at Trinity site, the second dropped on Nagasaki, Japan).
Large stockpiles of plutonium were built up by both the old Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War—it was estimated that 300,000 kg of plutonium had been accumulated by 1982. Since the end of the Cold War, these stockpiles have become a focus of nuclear proliferation concerns. In 2002, the United States Department of Energy took possession of 34 metric tons of excess weapons grade plutonium stockpiles from the United States Department of Defense, and as of early 2003 was considering converting several nuclear power plants in the US from enriched uranium fuel to MOX fuel as a means of disposing of these.
During the initial years after the discovery of plutonium, when its biological and physical properties were very poorly understood, a series of human experiments called Operation Sunshine were performed by the U.S. government and by private organizations acting on its behalf. From the time of April 1945 to July 1947, 18 men, women, and children were deliberately injected with solutions containing various concentrations of plutonium by doctors working with the Manhattan Project. Though the injections were only to occur in what were percieved by the doctors as terminally ill patients at the hospital, in at least one instance this was not the case and the injections, in all cases, were conducted without any kind of informed consent from the subjects of the experiment. The episode is considered today, to be a gross violation of human rights and of the Hippocratic Oath, and is widely regarded as one of the darkest chapters in 20th. century american medical history. 
While almost all plutonium is manufactured synthetically, extremely tiny trace amounts are found naturally in uranium ores. These come about by a process of neutron capture by 238U nuclei, initially forming 239U; two subsequent beta decays then form 239Pu (with a 239Np intermediary), which has a half-life of 24,100 years. This is also the process used to manufacture 239Pu in nuclear reactors. Some traces of 244Pu is also still left since birth of solar system from waste of supernovae, because its half-life (80 million yrs) is so long. A relative high concentration of plutonium had been discovered at the natural fission reactor of Oklo, Gabon in 1972. Since 1945, about 10 tons of plutonium have been released onto Earth through nuclear explosions.
The isotope Pu-239 is the key ingredient to most nuclear weapons. Its manufacture is therefore important to nuclear weapon states. Controlling or preventing the manufacture of refined Pu-239 is also important in preventing nuclear proliferation.
Pu-239 is normally manufactured in nuclear reactors. If U-238 is exposed to neutron radiation, nuclei will occasionally capture a neutron, becoming U-239. This happens more easily with fast neutrons than with slow neutrons, although both can be used. The U-239 rapidly undergoes beta decay to give Np-239, which rapidly undergoes a second beta decay, giving Pu-239. Fission activity is relatively rare, so even after significant exposure, the Pu-239 is still mixed with a great deal of U-238 (and possibly other isotopes of uranium, oxygen, other components of the original material, and fission products). The Pu-239 can then be chemically separated from the rest of the material to give high-purity Pu-239 metal.
If Pu-239 captures a neutron, it becomes Pu-240. Pu-240 undergoes spontaneous fission at a relatively high rate. As a result, plutonium containing a significant fraction of Pu-240 is not well-suited to use in nuclear weapons; it emits neutron radiation, making handling more difficult, and its presence can lead to a "fizzle" in which a small explosion occurs, destroying the weapon but not causing fission of a significant fraction of the fuel. (The US has constructed a single experimental bomb using only reactor-grade plutonium.) Moreover, Pu-239 and Pu-240 cannot be chemically distinguished, so expensive and difficult isotope separation would be necessary to build a nuclear weapon using such a mix. Thus for the purposes of plutonium production, it is necessary to remove the U-238 frequently, before significant amounts of Pu-239 can be converted into Pu-240.
A nuclear reactor that is used to produce plutonium must therefore have a means for exposing U-238 to neutron radiation, and for frequently rotating this U-238. A reactor running on unenriched or moderately enriched uranium naturally contains a great deal of U-238. However, most commercial power reactor designs require the entire reactor to shut down, often for weeks, in order to change the fuel elements. They therefore produce plutonium in a mix of isotopes that is not well-suited to weapon construction. Such a reactor could have machinery added that would permit U-238 slugs to be placed near the core and changed frequently, or it could be shut down frequently, so proliferation is a concern; for this reason, the IAEA inspects licensed reactors frequently. A few commercial power reactor designs, RBMK and CANDU, do permit refueling without shutdowns, and they therefore pose a proliferation risk. (In fact, the RBMK was built by the Soviet Union during the cold war, so despite their ostensibly peaceful purpose, it is likely that plutonium production was a design criterion. Their requirement for refueling made a proper containment structure infeasible, drastically worsening the Chernobyl accident.)
Most plutonium is produced in research reactors or plutonium production reactors. Some production reactors are called breeder reactors because they produce more plutonium than they consume fuel; in principle, such reactors make extremely efficient use of natural uranium. In practice, their construction and operation is sufficiently difficult, and proliferation is a serious enough concern, that they are generally only used to produce plutonium. Plutonium reactors are generally (but not always) fast reactors, since fast neutrons are somewhat more efficient at plutonium production.
Plutonium reacts readily with oxygen, forming PuO and PuO2, as well as intermediate oxides. It reacts with the halides, giving rise to compounds such as PuX3 where X can be F, Cl, 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 to form PuSi2.
21 plutonium radioisotopes have been characterized, with the most stable being Pu-244 with a half-life of 80.8 million years, Pu-242 with a half-life of 373,300 years and Pu-239 with a half-life of 24,100 years. All of the remaining radioactive isotopes have half-lifes that are less than 7,000 years. This element also has 8 meta states, though none are very stable (all have half-lives less than 1s).
The isotopes of plutonium range in atomic weight from 228.0387 u (Pu-228) to 247.074 u (Pu-247). The primary decay modes before the most stable isotope, Pu-244, are spontaneous fission and alpha emission; the primary mode after is beta emission. The primary decay products before Pu-244 are uranium and neptunium isotopes (neglecting the wide range of daughter nuclei created by fission processes), and the primary products after are americium isotopes.
Key isotopes for applications are Pu-239, which is suitable for use in nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors, and Pu-238, which is suitable for use in radioisotope thermoelectric generators; see above for more details. The isotope Pu-240 undergoes spontaneous fission very readily, and is produced when Pu-239 is exposed to neutrons. Plutonium consisting of more than about 90% Pu-239 is called weapons-grade plutonium; plutonium obtained from commercial reactors generally contains at least 20% Pu-240 and is called reactor-grade plutonium.
All isotopes and compounds of plutonium are toxic and radioactive. While plutonium is sometimes described in media reports as "the most toxic substance known to man", there is general agreement among experts in the field that this is incorrect. As of 2003, there has yet to be a single human death officially attributed to plutonium exposure. Naturally-occurring radium is about 200 times more radiotoxic than plutonium, and some organic toxins like Botulin toxin are still more toxic. Botulin toxin, in particular, has a lethal dose of 300pg/kg, far less than the quantity of plutonium that poses a significant cancer risk. In addition, beta and gamma emitters (including the C-14 and K-40 in nearly all food) can cause cancer on casual contact, which alpha emitters cannot.
Orally, plutonium is less toxic (non-oncogenically speaking) than several common substances, including caffeine, acetaminophen, some vitamins, pseudoephedrine, and any number of plants and fungi. It is perhaps somewhat more toxic than pure ethanol, but less so than tobacco and many illegal drugs (some such as LSD and marijuana are negligibly toxic). Considering the pure chemical toxicity it probably ranks with lead and other heavy metals.
That said, there is no doubt that plutonium may be extremely dangerous when handled incorrectly. The alpha radiation it emits does not penetrate the skin, but can irradiate internal organs when plutonium is inhaled or ingested; particularly at risk are the skeleton, which it is liable to be absorbed onto the surface of, and the liver, where it will collect and become concentrated. Extremely small particles of plutonium on the order of micrograms have a (small) chance to cause lung cancer if inhaled into the lungs.
Other substances including ricin, botulinum toxin and tetanus toxin are fatal in doses of (sometimes far) under one milligram, and others (the nerve agents, nutmeg by injection, the amanita toxin, the fugu toxin) are in the range of a few milligrams. As such, plutonium is not unusual in terms of toxicity, even by inhalation. In addition, those substances are fatal in hours to days, whereas plutonium (and other cancer-causing radioactives) give an increased chance of illness decades in the future. Considerably larger amounts may cause acute radiation poisoning and death if ingested or inhaled; however, so far, no human is known to have immediately died because of inhaling or ingesting plutonium and many people have measurable amounts of plutonium in their bodies.
The chemical and radiological toxicity of plutonium should be distinguished from each other and further, from the potential danger of a runaway fission reaction or "criticality". Many, both in the anti-nuclear movement and in the continuing green politics movement, refer to plutonium as the most dangerous substance known to man because of its use in nuclear power plants which are seen by them as inherently dangerous, and for its potential as a catalyst for nuclear weapons proliferation.
Possibly it is the confusion of these two issues that has led to sensational exaggerations of plutonium toxicity. A 1989 paper by Bernard L. Cohen states:
- Pu hazards are far better understood than [those from insecticides or food additives], and the one fatality per 300 years they may someday cause is truly trivial by comparison. In spite of the facts we have cited here, facts well known in the scientific community, the myth of Pu toxicity lingers on. (MS Word) (html)
It must however be noted, that in contrast to naturally occurring radioisotopes such as radium or C-14, Plutonium has been manufactured, concentrated and isolated in large amounts (100s of metric tons) during the Cold War for weapons production. These piles (whether in weapons form or otherwise) could pose a significant toxicologic risk—not least due to the fact that there is no feasible known way to destroy them (whereas that can be easily done with biological poisons).
Toxicity issues aside, care must be taken to avoid the accumulation of amounts of plutonium which approach critical mass, the amount of plutonium which will self-generate a nuclear reaction. Despite not being confined by external pressure as is required for a nuclear weapon, it will nevertheless heat itself and break whatever confining environment it is in. Shape is relevant; compact shapes such as spheres are to be avoided. Plutonium in solution is more likely to form a critical mass than the solid form. A weapon-scale nuclear explosion cannot occur accidentally, since it requires a greatly supercritical mass in order to explode rather than simply melt or fragment. However, a marginally critical mass will cause a lethal dose of radiation and has in fact done so in the past on several occasions.
Multiple criticality accidents have occurred in the past at least in the US and the former USSR, some of them with lethal consequences. Careless handling of a 6.2 kg plutonium sphere resulted in a lethal dose of radiation at Los Alamos on August 21, 1945, when scientist Harry Daghlian received a dose estimated to be 510 rems (5.1 Sv) and died four weeks later. Nine months later, another Los Alamos scientist, Louis Slotin, died from a similar accident. In 1958, during a process of purifying plutonium at Los Alamos, a critical mass was formed in a mixing vessel, which ended in the death of a crane operator. Other accidents of this sort have occurred in the Soviet Union, Japan, and many other countries. (See List of nuclear accidents)
Metallic plutonium is also a fire hazard, especially if the material is finely divided. It reacts chemically with oxygen and water which may result in an accumulation of plutonium hydride , a pyrophoric substance; that is, a material that will burn in air at room temperature. Plutonium expands considerably in size as it oxidizes and thus may break its container. The radioactivity of the burning material is of course an additional hazard. Magnesium oxide sand is the most effective material for extinguishing a plutonium fire. It both cools the burning material, acting as a heat sink, and also blocks off oxygen. Water is also effective. There was a major plutonium initiated fire at the Rocky Flats Plant near Boulder, Colorado in 1969 . To avoid these problems, special precautions are necessary to store or handle plutonium in any form; generally a dry inert atmosphere is required .
- Los Alamos National Laboratory - Plutonium
- It's Elemental - Plutonium
- WebElements.com - Plutonium
- EnvironmentalChemistry.com - Plutonium
- Federation of American Scientists - Plutonium production
- nuclearweaponarchive.org - Plutonium Manufacture and Fabrication
- The Dangers of Plutonium - Anti-nuclear viewpoint
- collection of articles on plutonium at the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
- The Myth of Plutonium Toxicity
- Criticality Accidents Report Issued
- Nuclear Accidents Timeline
- Nuclear Weapons: Disposal Options for Surplus Weapons-Usable Plutonium
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