- What are electromagnetic fields?
- Static and low-frequency fields
- What are static and low-frequency electric and magnetic fields?
- Direct and alternating voltage
- Effects of static and low-frequency fields
- Reports & Evaluations
- Radiation protection relating to the expansion of the national grid
- Basics transfer of electrical power
- High-frequency fields
- What are high-frequency fields?
- Applications high-frequency fields
- Radiation protection in mobile communication
- What is mobile communication?
- Reports and evaluations
- What is optical radiation?
- UV radiation
- What is UV radiation?
- Sun but safe!
- Effects of UV radiation
- Protection against UV radiation
- UV index
- Infrared radiation
- What is ionising radiation?
- Radioactivity in the environment
- Where does radioactivity occur in the environment?
- What is the level of natural radiation exposure in Germany?
- Air, soil and water
- Building materials
- Industrial residues (NORM)
- BfS laboratories
- Applications in medicine
- Radiation protection in medicine: international activities
- Applications in daily life and in technology
- Radioactive radiation sources in Germany
- Register high-level radioactive radiation sources
- Type approval procedure pursuant to RöV and StrlSchV
- Cabin luggage security checks
- Radioactive materials in watches
- Ionisation smoke detectors (ISM)
- What are the effects of radiation?
- Acute radiation damage
- Effects of selected radioactive materials
- Consequences of a radiation accident
- Cancer and leukaemia
- Genetic radiation effects
- Individual radiosensitivity
- Epidemiology of radiation-induced diseases
- Ionising radiation: positive effects?
- Risk estimation and assessment
- Radiation protection
- Basic informations
- Occupational radiation protection
- Nuclear accident management
- What happens in an emergency?
- Federal and state tasks
- In the event of an emergency
- Measuring networks
- Exercises for emergency situations
- Nuclear accidents
- Defence against nuclear hazards
- Service offers
- Radon measurements
- Incorporation monitoring
- Biological dosimetry
- Online library
- About us
- Science and research
- Research concept
- Scientific collaborations
- EU research framework programme
- BfS research programme
- Third-party funded research
- Departmental research
- Selected research projects
- Selected research results
- Professional opinions
- Laws and regulations
- BfS Topics in the Bundestag
- Plutonium (Pu) is a heavy metal with the atomic number 94.
- For the human body it is chemically toxic as some other heavy metals like lead and mercury.
- Plutonium is not only hazardous to human health due to its chemical properties. It is also radioactive and thus causes also harmful radiation effects. They are most dangerous after inhalation.
Plutonium is a heavy metal with the atomic number 94. For the human body it is chemically toxic as some other heavy metals like lead and mercury.
Additionally, plutonium is radioactive, which means that its various nuclides (238, 239, 240, 241, 242, 244) emit radiation during decay. The half-life of plutonium nuclides is rather long, for example for plutonium-239, it takes 24,110 years until half of the atomic nuclei have decayed. During radioactive decay, mainly alpha radiation is emitted and - to a far lesser extent - also gamma radiation.
Appearance, sources and properties of plutonium
Plutonium occurs in nuclear reactors when uranium-238 is exposed to a neutron flow inside the nuclear fuel rods. To this day, about one thousand tons of plutonium have been generated by military and civil activities. Large amounts of plutonium have been released to the environment during the above-ground nuclear weapon tests in the 1950s and 1960s (fall-out). Thus, about four tons of plutonium have been spread around the world. These are mainly the nuclides plutonium-239 and plutonium-240.
Natural sources of plutonium are very scarce. Traces of plutonium-244 occur in some minerals, for example.
The different plutonium isotopes can be detected by alpha and gamma spectrometry and by measuring the beta radiation of plutonium-241.
|Pu-244||80 million years|
Medical-biological effects of plutonium
Plutonium is not only hazardous to human health due to its chemical properties. Its radioactivity may also cause harmful radiation effects due to alpha and gamma radiation. Depending on the route of incorporation, primarily inhalation and ingestion, different effects occur. Incorporation through open skin or wounds is also possible.
Effects after inhalation
Plutonium is most dangerous after inhalation. The solubility of the plutonium compounds determines how long the plutonium stays in the lung. A number of physical, chemical, and biological factors influence the retention time, which can be between about 100 and 10,000 days. After absorption in the lung, the plutonium is dispersed in the body and predominantly accumulates in the bones, the liver, and the airway lymph nodes.
Effects after food intake
After ingestion of plutonium with food, large parts are excreted with the faeces. The proportion of plutonium that is resorbed from food via the gastrointestinal tract depends mainly on the kind of plutonium compound and the person's age. A rough estimate of the resorption rate of plutonium via foods is 0.05 %. For infants, this rate is supposed to be ten times higher. After resorption of plutonium through the gastrointestinal tract, it is dispersed in the body and accumulates primarily in the bones and the liver.
Of the plutonium absorbed through the blood, about 50 % accumulates in the bones, 30 % in the liver, and 20 % in other tissues. The retention time of incorporated plutonium in the bones is about fifty to hundred years, and in the liver twenty to forty years, respectively.
Because of the variable distribution of plutonium within the body as well as the differing retention times, the radiotoxicity of plutonium results in varying cancer risks. After inhalation, the risk of lung, bone, and liver cancer, and of leukemia is generally increased. After oral intake, risks of bone cancer, liver cancer, and leukemia are increased. After the intake of the same amount of plutonium activity through the breathing air, the risk of cancer can be about hundred times higher compared to the intake through food, depending on the chemical type.
Employees of the Soviet plutonium factory MAYAK, based in the Southern Ural, showed increased lung cancer mortality depending on the amount of plutonium they incorporated. Currently, a large internationally coordinated research program is conducted in the Southern Ural to better determine the health effects of plutonium incorporation, among others. Besides that, the assessment of radiation exposure from plutonium is being improved.
Sources of evidence
In addition to the results from that research, animal experiments and studies in individuals who were exposed to other alpha emitters than plutonium or to other forms of radiation are used to determine the detriment caused by plutonium.
State of 2017.07.11