Plutonium was the second transuranium element of the actinide series to be discovered. The isotope 238Pu was produced in 1940 by Seaborg, McMillan, Kennedy, and Wahl by deuteron bombardment of uranium in the 60-inch cyclotron at Berkeley, California. Plutonium also exists in trace quantities in naturally occurring uranium ores. It is formed in much the same manner as neptunium, by irradiation of natural uranium with the neutrons which are present.
Plutonium has assumed the position of dominant importance among the trasuranium elements because of its successful use as an explosive ingredient in nuclear weapons and the place which it holds as a key material in the development of industrial use of nuclear power. One kilogram is equivalent to about 22 million kilowatt hours of heat energy. The complete detonation of a kilogram of plutonium produces an explosion equal to about 20,000 tons of chemical explosive. Its importance depends on the nuclear property of being readily fissionable with neutrons and its availability in quantity. The world's nuclear-power reactors are now producing about 20,000 kg of plutonium/yr. By 1982 it was estimated that about 300,000 kg had accumulated. The various nuclear applications of plutonium are well known. 238Pu has been used in the Apollo lunar missions to power seismic and other equipment on the lunar surface. As with neptunium and uranium, plutonium metal can be prepared by reduction of the trifluoride with alkaline-earth metals.
The metal has a silvery appearance and takes on a yellow tarnish when slightly oxidized. It is chemically reactive. A relatively large piece of plutonium is warm to the touch because of the energy given off in alpha decay. Larger pieces will produce enough heat to boil water. The metal readily dissolves in concentrated hydrochloric acid, hydroiodic acid, or perchloric acid.
Because of the high rate of emission of alpha particles and the element being specifically absorbed on bone the surface and collected in the liver, plutonium, as well as all of the other transuranium elements except neptunium, are radiological poisons and must be handled with very special equipment and precautions. Plutonium is a very dangerous radiological hazard. Precautions must also be taken to prevent the unintentional formulation of a critical mass. Plutonium in liquid solution is more likely to become critical than solid plutonium. The shape of the mass must also be considered where criticality is concerned.
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