Plutonium-238

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Image:Plutonium pellet.jpg
Plutonium-238 glowing from its own light

Plutonium 238, is a radioactive isotope of plutonium with a half-life of 86.41 years and is a very powerful alpha emitter. Because of its high level of alpha activity, it is used for radioisotope thermoelectric generators and radioisotope heater units. Plutonium-238 decays to Uranium-234 and then further along the radium series to Lead-206.

The use of plutonium-238 in American and Soviet spacecraft is somewhat controversial. Plutonium-238 was the first isotope of plutonium to be discovered. It was synthesized by Glenn Seaborg and associates in 1941 by bombarding uranium-238 with deuterium. Neptunium-238 is made as an intermediate product, which then decays to form plutonium-238.

Today, Plutonium 238 is usually prepared by the irradiation of neptunium 237, a minor actinide produced in nuclear reactors, that can be recovered from spent nuclear fuel during reprocessing, or by the irradiation of americium in a reactor. In both cases, the targets are subjected to a chemical treatment, including dissolution in nitric acid to extract the plutonium-238. A 100kg sample of light water reactor fuel that has been irradiated for three years contains only about 700 grams of neptunium 237, and the neptunium must be extracted selectively.

The United States currently has limited facilities to produce plutonium-238. Since 1993, the U.S. has purchased all of the plutonium-238 it has used in space probes from Russia. 16.5 kilograms total have been purchased. [1]


Plutonium-237 Isotopes of Plutonium Plutonium-239
Produced from:
Curium-242 (α)
Americium-238 (β+)
Neptunium-238 (β-)
Decay chain Decays to:
Uranium-234 (α)

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Plutonium-238

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