A Brief History
On December 14, 1940, at the University of California at Berkeley, atomic scientists first isolated the element Plutonium, a radioactive element with a designation of Pu-238 on the atomic chart of the elements (also known as the Periodic Chart), Element #94 for those keeping track. Plutonium is the stuff we make nuclear bombs from and is a highly dangerous substance even without the thermo-nuclear explosions associated with it.
Element #94 was first discovered by Enrico Fermi and his team in 1934 at the University of Rome, and named the element Hesperium, but it turned out to be an amalgam of other elements. Fermi went on to become a major scientist working on creating the Atomic Bomb in the United States during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project.
Even before the entry into the fighting of World War II the United States was highly concerned about secrecy when it came to atomic science and idea of creating an atomic bomb. Thus, the discovery of Plutonium was kept quiet and scientific publication of the discovery was not allowed until 1948. The name, Plutonium, comes in honor of what was then considered our 9th Planet, especially since other radioactive metals Uranium (Uranus) and Neptunium (Neptune) were previously named after other planets.
Plutonium occurs naturally within Uranium, though in small amounts. A silvery-grayish metal, it tarnishes when exposed to the atmosphere, and is creates a flaky exterior that is pyrophoric, meaning it ignites when exposed to temperatures below 129 degrees Fahrenheit. Due to this property, Plutonium is best handled in atmospheres of pure Nitrogen or Argon. Naturally found in such small amounts, Plutonium was not a significant part of nuclear research until it could be isolated and produced by deuteron bombardment of uranium-238 by the Berkeley team in 1940. At least 2 isotopes of Plutonium are useful for creating atomic/nuclear bombs and are much better for this purpose than Uranium. The Nagasaki atomic bomb, called “Fat Man,” was a Plutonium sphere type device (as opposed to the Hiroshima bomb, known as “Little Boy,” which was a Uranium “gun” type device). In fact, the first nuclear detonation in history known as the “Trinity test” was a Plutonium cored spherical bomb.
Plutonium is highly toxic to human beings, both from extreme radioactivity and from heavy metal poisoning. Researchers and research subjects have been sickened and killed by exposure to Plutonium, and the residue of nuclear bomb tests has poisoned our atmosphere. Plutonium is most dangerous when inhaled, more so than exposure to the skin or ingestion. It can rapidly cause lung cancer in even small amounts. Despite hysterical claims about the incredible toxicity of Plutonium, real research indicates the substance is about at toxic to people as nerve gas. One pound of Plutonium can kill around 2 million people, as opposed to a common myth that a pound of the stuff could kill every person on the Earth. Another danger of Plutonium is the fact that a “critical mass,” that amount needed to spontaneously cause nuclear fission (and a nuclear blast) is only a third of that of Uranium 235. Thus, handlers must be careful to limit the amount of Plutonium that is in the presence of other amounts of Plutonium.
Plutonium is used for purposes other than just nuclear bombs. It is used in the generation of electricity, both on Earth and for use in space craft, or even artificial heart pacemakers! Medical uses for this metal remain under study.
A problem with Plutonium and other nuclear material left over from electrical nuclear plants is that of disposal of the stuff. With a half life ranging from 14.4 years to 24,000 years, depending on the isotope of Plutonium, this highly radioactive substance presents a challenge for storage and disposal. Trying to find a place to keep unwanted radioactive waste, including Plutonium, is highly problematic as few if any people want the stuff anywhere near where they live. Environmentalists are also not too happy to hear of schemes that place nuclear waste on the bottom of oceans, either. Many nuclear dump sites are thus considered “temporary” until a permanent solution is agreed upon. (Will such an agreement ever take place? Possibly not!) If you have a solution to the storage/disposal of unwanted radioactive material such as Plutonium, be sure to tell the government!
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For more information, please see…
Bernstein, Jeremy. Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element. Cornell University Press, 2009.
Olson, Steve. The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age. W. W. Norton & Company, 2020.
Welsome, Eileen. The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War. The Dial Press, 1999.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by the U.S. Department of Energy of two shiny pellets of plutonium of about 3 cm in diameter, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.