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What is Plutonium?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Plutonium is a metallic chemical element classified among the actinides on the periodic table of elements. This highly radioactive element is used primarily in weapons and nuclear power plants, and it has become somewhat well known because of these uses. In nature, plutonium is relatively rare, occurring in uranium rich ores in trace amounts; most of the world's working supply of this element is obtained through neutron bombardment of uranium, a close neighbor on the periodic table.

When plutonium is isolated, its appearance may vary, because it has six allotropic forms, meaning that the element has six different structures under normal conditions. These forms vary in terms of density, although they all share the basic chemical properties of toxicity, radioactivity, and reactivity with many other elements. Most forms of plutonium are silvery-gray, but they oxidize to a dull yellow over time. Quantities which are large enough are also warm to the touch, due to the alpha particles they emit as they age.

On the periodic table of elements, plutonium is identified with the symbol Pu and the atomic number 94. Credit for the discovery of the element is usually given to a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, who uncovered it in 1940 while studying the properties of uranium. Gleen T. Seaborg led the team, which also included Edwin McMillan, Joseph Kennedy, and Arthur Wahl. Initially, the discovery of the element was kept secret, due to concerns about its potential military applications.

This element is named for the planet Pluto, in a reference to the preceding elements of the periodic table, neptunium and uranium. In addition to being used in weapons and power plants, plutonium also appears in medical research and nuclear research. It can be difficult to work with, as it can exhibit strange behaviors, sometimes in response to very small fluctuations in its conditions.

Like other radioactive elements, plutonium represents a health risk. It can accumulate in bone marrow and organs such as the liver, causing damage as it emits radiation. The element can also form compounds which will spontaneously combust at room temperature, and it can react alarmingly with some other elements. Because plutonium is so rare, average consumers will rarely, if ever interact with it, and people who utilize the element in their work are usually given meticulous safety training.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon163900 — On Mar 29, 2011

yes plutonium is a very dangerous and in my opinion, very useless element. We as human beings don't need to be messing with such a powerful and potentially dangerous element. We're not god, we're just lowly pathetic human beings who only know how to wage war and find new cures to things that end up hurting us more than helping us.

We fight over nothing but dirt and criticize other races, when in reality, we're all the same. We all bleed the same color and again, we're not god. we should just drop the element and stop fooling with it. If we did, it could be the only potential smart thing mankind has done for itself.

By anon160544 — On Mar 16, 2011

I searched about this plutonium because i was reading about what happened in Japan and i found out that one of the "reactors" that they are using is fueled or has a fuel mix with plutonium.

And what scares me the most is reading what this plutonium can do to humans. Specially to human health.

I hope that this crisis will be solved quickly and safely. And thank you so much for this very detailed information about plutonium.

By anon33939 — On Jun 14, 2009

this is a good article

random person from the c block

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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