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NRC Science 101: What is Plutonium? UPDATED

Maureen Conley
Public Affairs Officer

science_101_squeakychalkIn earlier Science 101 posts, we talked about what makes up atoms, chemicals and matter. In this post, we will look at a specific chemical element — plutonium.

Plutonium is a radioactive, metallic element with the atomic number 94. It was discovered in 1940 by scientists studying the process of splitting atoms. Plutonium is created in a nuclear reactor when uranium atoms, specifically uranium-238, absorb neutrons. Nearly all plutonium is man-made.

Plutonium predominantly emits alpha particles—a type of radiation that does not penetrate and has a short range. It also emits neutrons, beta particles and gamma rays. It is considered toxic, in part, because if it were to be inhaled it could deposit in lungs and eventually cause damage to the tissue.

Plutonium has five “common” isotopes, Pu-238, Pu-239, Pu-240, Pu-241, and Pu-242. All of the more common isotopes of plutonium are “fissionable”—which means the atom’s nucleus can easily split apart if it is struck by a neutron.

The various isotopes of plutonium have been used in a number of applications. Plutonium-239 contains the highest quantities of fissile material, and is notably one of the primary fuels used in nuclear weapons. Plutonium-238 has more benign applications and has been used to power batteries for some heart pacemakers, as well as provide a long-lived heat source to power NASA space missions. Like uranium, plutonium can also be used to fuel nuclear power plants, as is done in a few countries. Currently, the U.S. does not use plutonium fuel in its power reactors.

plutoniumNuclear reactors that produce commercial power in the United States today create plutonium through the irradiation of uranium fuel. Some of the plutonium itself fissions—part of the chain reaction of splitting atoms that is the basis of nuclear power. Any plutonium that does not fission stays in the spent fuel. Spent nuclear fuel from U.S. reactors contains about one percent plutonium by weight.

The different isotopes have different “half-lives” – the time it takes for one-half of a radioactive substance to decay. Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years and Pu-241’s half-life is 14.4 years. Substances with shorter half-lives decay more quickly than those with longer half-lives, so they emit more energetic radioactivity.

Like any radioactive isotopes, plutonium isotopes transform when they decay. They might become different plutonium isotopes or different elements, such as uranium or neptunium. Many of the “daughter products” of plutonium isotopes are themselves radioactive.

Many metric tons of plutonium are currently contained in spent nuclear fuel around the world. To be usable, plutonium needs to be separated from the other products in spent fuel through a method called reprocessing. Reprocessing separates plutonium from uranium and fission products through chemical means. Once separated, plutonium oxide can be used as fuel for nuclear power reactors by mixing it with uranium oxide to produce mixed oxide or MOX fuel. The U.S. government has historically discouraged the use of this technology for national security and environmental reasons.

The NRC is currently overseeing construction of a facility in South Carolina to make MOX fuel using plutonium removed from U.S. nuclear weapons declared excess to military needs, as part of a Department of Energy program to convert it into a proliferation-resistant form that would be difficult to convert again for use in nuclear weapons.

NRC Science 101 — Different Types of Radiation

Donald Cool
Senior Radiation Safety Advisor

science_101_squeakychalkIn earlier Science 101 posts, we talked about what makes up atoms, chemicals, matter and ionizing radiation. In this post, we will look at the different kinds of radiation.

There are four major types of radiation: alpha, beta, neutrons, and electromagnetic waves such as gamma rays. They differ in mass, energy and how deeply they penetrate people and objects.

The first is an alpha particle. These particles consist of two protons and two neutrons and are the heaviest type of radiation particle. Many of the naturally occurring radioactive materials in the earth, like uranium and thorium, emit alpha particles. An example most people are familiar with is the radon in our homes.

The second kind of radiation is a beta particle. It’s an electron that is not attached to an atom (see previous blog post). It has a small mass and a negative charge. Tritium, which is produced by cosmic radiation in the atmosphere and exists all around us, emits beta radiation. Carbon-14, used in carbon-dating of fossils and other artifacts, also emits beta particles. Carbon-dating simply makes use of the fact that carbon-14 is radioactive. If you measure the beta particles, it tells you how much carbon-14 is left in the fossil, which allows you to calculate how long ago the organism was alive.

The third is a neutron. This is a particle that doesn’t have any charge and is present in the nucleus of an atom. Neutrons are commonly seen when uranium atoms split, or fission, in a nuclear reactor. If it wasn’t for the neutrons, you wouldn’t be able to sustain the nuclear reaction used to generate power.

The last kind of radiation is electromagnetic radiation, like X-rays and gamma rays. They are probably the most familiar type of radiation because they are used widely in medical treatments. These rays are like sunlight, except they have more energy. Unlike the other kinds of radiation, there is no mass or charge. The amount of energy can range from very low, like in dental x-rays, to the very high levels seen in irradiators used to sterilize medical equipment.

fordoncools101As mentioned, these different kinds of radiation travel different distances and have different abilities to penetrate, depending on their mass and their energy. The figure (right) shows the differences.

Neutrons, because they don’t have any charge, don’t interact with materials very well and will go a very long way. The only way to stop them is with large quantities of water or other materials made of very light atoms.

On the other hand, an alpha particle, because it’s very heavy and has a very large charge, doesn’t go very far at all. This means an alpha particle can’t even get through a sheet of paper. An alpha particle outside your body won’t even penetrate the surface of your skin. But, if you inhale or ingest material that emits alpha particles, sensitive tissue like the lungs can be exposed. This is why high levels of radon are considered a problem in your home. The ability to stop alpha particles so easily is useful in smoke detectors, because a little smoke in the chamber is enough to stop the alpha particle and trigger the alarm.

Beta particles go a little farther than alpha particles. You could use a relatively small amount of shielding to stop them. They can get into your body but can’t go all the way through. To be useful in medical imaging, beta particles must be released by a material that is injected into the body. They can also be very useful in cancer therapy if you can put the radioactive material in a tumor.

Gamma rays and x-rays can penetrate through the body. This is why they are useful in medicine—to show whether bones are broken or where there is tooth decay, or to locate a tumor. Shielding with dense materials like concrete and lead is used to avoid exposing sensitive internal organs or the people who may be working with this type of radiation. For example, the technician who does my dental x-rays puts a lead apron over me before taking the picture. That apron stops the x-rays from getting to the rest of my body. The technician stands behind the wall, which usually has some lead in it, to protect him or herself.

Radiation is all around us, but that is not a reason to be afraid. Different types of radiation behave differently, and some forms can be very useful. For more information on radiation, please see our website.

Don Cool, who holds a Ph.D. in radiation biology, advises the NRC on radiation safety and for 30 years has been active on international radiation safety committees.

NRC Science 101: Understanding Ionizing Radiation – It’s Not That Bohr-ing!

Harry Anagnostopoulos
Health Physicist

science_101_squeakychalkIn this post, we will be discussing ionizing radiation. But to do that, we first have to talk about radiation, in general, and then build up to the concept of ionization.

In previous NRC Science 101 posts, we’ve talked about the composition of an atom, including electrons, protons and neutrons. In 1913, physicist Niels Bohr made adjustments to an earlier model which imagined that the structure of an atom was similar to a solar system: electrons in circular orbits around a “sun” otherwise known as an atomic nucleus.

While modern atomic science has a more accurate understanding of the atom, Bohr’s model is still useful. It is easy to visualize and helps us to think about the relationship between electrons and energy. So, for the purposes of this post, let’s use Bohr’s atomic model.

Radiation is simply the transfer of energy through a medium. The medium can be anything: water, air or even the vacuum of outer-space. The transfer of energy can be carried out by particles or by electromagnetic waves.

Let’s conduct a small experiment. Imagine putting your face close to (but not touching) a bare 100-watt light bulb in a lamp. If you did this, and closed your eyes, could you still tell if the light was on? Could you feel the heat on your face, even though you are not touching the bulb?

Of course you could. That’s radiation! Light, heat, pressure waves in the air (sound), radio signals, and x-rays are all forms of radiation.

atom2As noted in prior NRC Science 101 posts, the core of an atom (the nucleus) is surrounded by orbiting electrons, like planets or comets around a sun. The number of electrons (each with one negative electric charge) usually equals the number of positive charges in the center (from an equal number of protons). These charges cancel out. However, if an orbiting electron is pushed out of its orbit (due to it absorbing energy from an outside source), the charges are now unequal.

The result? An “ion pair” has been formed. The creation of an “ion pair” is called . . . ionization.

Ionizing radiation is radiation with enough energy to create ion pairs in atoms. It is ionizing radiation that is of particular interest to the NRC because of its potential to cause health effects (as will be discussed in a future post).

cometearthTo help you visualize this, think again about Bohr’s model. Imagine a comet (standing in place of an electron) passing through our solar system. As the comet approaches the sun, it feels an intensifying push as light from the sun imparts more and more energy to the comet. Eventually, there is so much “push” that the comet either changes speed or changes direction. Now where will it go? Will it now be on course to strike a planet or will it veer out of our solar system? It’s exactly what could happen to an electron in the subatomic universe it occupies.

But this example is nothing compared to the bizarre realm of atomic physics where a solar system (an atom) might spit out a mini-version of itself, split into two, or where two twin comets (electrons) might appear out of nothing! And there’s more! However, you will have to wait until a later post.

NRC Science 101 – Quantities and Units of Measure

Suzanne Schroer
Reliability and Risk Analyst

science_101_squeakychalkIn the last Science 101 blog post, we discussed measurements made in various units of measure, particularly meters, grams and liters. You might be wondering where these units of measure come from and how they relate to one another. If so, you’re in luck, as that is the topic for today’s post.

Quantities are characteristics or properties we are trying to measure, such as the length of an object. Units of measure are how we express measurements of quantities. For length, the unit we would use in science is meters. A unit is really only a particular amount of some quantity used as a reference point for measurements of that quantity. Put differently, units of measure are chosen and accepted by the people who use them.

Often, units of measure were agreed upon many years ago. One meter is as long as it is because that’s what scientists agreed to use as a base unit for length. A meter could have been some other length. For the sake of establishing well-defined and easily-accessible units of measure, the General Conference of Weights and Measures (a collection of scientists from multiple countries) created in 1960 the Sytème International d’Unités (otherwise known as the SI¬). This system relies upon the base units of measure listed in the following table.

Table 1

Often times, however, the base unit of measure can be either too large or too small to be useful in describing a particular measurement. For example, while we could talk about the distances between cities in meters, we would be using very large (and, as such, cumbersome) numbers. For example, from Portland, Maine, to St. Louis, Missouri, is 2,060,000 m or 2,060 km. Similarly, if we are talking about the size of atoms, the basic building blocks of matter, speaking in terms of meters would be difficult as the diameter of a hydrogen atom is only 0.000000000120m. So, instead, for the sake of convenience, we often use prefixes to modify the size of the base unit. The following table lists a number of such prefixes using meter for the base.

Table2 Update again

The above table lays out conversion factors, ratios that can be used to convert one unit to another. For example, one such ratio, expressing the relationship between kilometers and meters, would be 1 km / 1000m. Using this ratio, we can convert 12348m into 12.348km (12348m x 1km / 1000m).

The NRC uses these same ideas when measuring radiation. These measurements will be discussed in an upcoming Science 101 post. As always, thank you for reading the NRC’s Science 101 blog series.


NRC Science 101: What is Matter?

Suzanne Schroer
Reliability and Risk Analyst
Office of New Reactors

science_101_squeakychalkIn the last Science 101 post, we talked a little about the law of conservation of mass. Again, that law states that mass can neither be created nor destroyed as part of an ordinary chemical change (or, for that matter, a physical change). In this post, we’ll talk more in depth about what specifically “mass” is.

Everything that exists is made up of matter. It has two fundamental properties: volume and mass. Volume simply refers to the space an object takes up. Depending on the physical state of an object, there are a couple ways to measure volume. If we are trying to measure the volume of a box, for instance, we would multiply the length of the box by its height and by its width.

Let’s say that we have a box with the following dimensions: length = 3 meters (“m”), height = 4m, and width = 5m. Based on those dimensions, our box would have a volume of 60m3 (3m x 4m x 5m = 60m3). That is, again, a measure (in cubic meters) of how much three-dimensional space our box takes up.

If, on the other hand, our object was a liquid, we could use a graduated cylinder (a scientific measuring cup) to measure the volume of our object. This measure would be reported in liters. Again, a liter is just a measure of how much space a liquid takes up. For example, you can purchase soda in 2-liter bottles.soda

Since we’ve been talking a little about measurements, it might make sense at this point to distinguish between quantity and units. Thinking again about our example, the quantity we are trying to measure is volume. The unit we use to report this measurement is in liters or cubic meters.

Now, let’s now talk about the other fundamental property of matter — mass. When we talk about mass, we are referring to how much “stuff” is in an object. To illustrate this, think about two pieces of candy, both of the same kind and both the same size, however one of them is hollow. The candy that isn’t hollow has more mass compared to the hollow candy. Given that we often use scales to measure mass, you might think that mass and weight are the same thing. But they aren’t. Mass is the measure of matter in a particular object. No matter where that object is in the vast universe, it will have the same mass.

scaleWeight, on the other hand, is a measure of how much gravitational force is exerted on an object. While the weight of an object is proportional to its mass (the more mass of an object the more it will weigh), gravity varies according by where you are in the universe or even where you are on Earth—you actually weigh more, because there is a higher gravitational force, on the poles than you would at the equator. So, while an object will have a particular weight here on Earth, it will not have the same weight on the moon. It would, however, have the same mass both places.

Now that we can determine if something is matter (if it has volume and mass), we can use another measurement, density, to determine what kind of matter a substance is. Density is the ratio of how much mass is in an object compared to the volume of that object. Density is calculated by dividing an object’s mass by its volume.

Think back to our box with a volume of 60m3. Let’s say that our box has a mass of 240 grams (g). If that were the case, the density of our box would be 4 g/m3 (240g / 60m3). Density is nothing more than a way of stating how much matter fits within a particular volume. Using the two pieces of candy, while both have the same size (or volume), the solid one has more mass when compared to the hollow one and, as such, the solid candy is more dense (more matter in a particular volume) than the hollow candy.

Because the density of a particular substance (something with a defined composition, such as pure copper), is the same for all pieces of that substance, regardless of size, density is often useful in determining the identity of a particular object. Once we’ve calculated the density of an object, we can compare that value to the known densities for substances to determine what substance we believe the object is.

The author has a bachelor’s degree in Nuclear Engineering and a master’s in Reliability Engineering.
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