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A radionuclide (radioactive nuclide, radioisotope or radioactive isotope) is an atom that has excess nuclear energy, making it unstable. This excess energy can be used in one of three ways: emitted from the nucleus as gamma radiation; transferred to one of its electrons to release it as a conversion electron; or used to create and emit a new particle (alpha particle or beta particle) from the nucleus. During those processes, the radionuclide is said to undergo radioactive decay.[1] These emissions are considered ionizing radiation because they are powerful enough to liberate an electron from another atom. The radioactive decay can produce a stable nuclide or will sometimes produce a new unstable radionuclide which may undergo further decay. Radioactive decay is a random process at the level of single atoms: it is impossible to predict when one particular atom will decay.[2][3][4][5] However, for a collection of atoms of a single element the decay rate, and thus the half-life (t1/2) for that collection, can be calculated from their measured decay constants. The range of the half-lives of radioactive atoms has no known limits and spans a time range of over 55 orders of magnitude.

Radionuclides occur naturally or are artificially produced in nuclear reactors, cyclotrons, particle accelerators or radionuclide generators. There are about 730 radionuclides with half-lives longer than 60 minutes (see list of nuclides). Thirty-two of those are primordial radionuclides that were created before the earth was formed. At least another 60 radionuclides are detectable in nature, either as daughters of primordial radionuclides or as radionuclides produced through natural production on Earth by cosmic radiation. More than 2400 radionuclides have half-lives less than 60 minutes. Most of those are only produced artificially, and have very short half-lives. For comparison, there are about 252 stable nuclides. (In theory, only 146 of them are stable, and the other 106 are believed to decay via alpha decay, beta decay, double beta decay, electron capture, or double electron capture.)

All chemical elements can exist as radionuclides. Even the lightest element, hydrogen, has a well-known radionuclide, tritium. Elements heavier than lead, and the elements technetium and promethium, exist only as radionuclides. (In theory, elements heavier than dysprosium exist only as radionuclides, but some such elements, like gold and platinum, are observationally stable and their half-lives have not been determined).

Unplanned exposure to radionuclides generally has a harmful effect on living organisms including humans, although low levels of exposure occur naturally without harm. The degree of harm will depend on the nature and extent of the radiation produced, the amount and nature of exposure (close contact, inhalation or ingestion), and the biochemical properties of the element; with increased risk of cancer the most usual consequence. However, radionuclides with suitable properties are used in nuclear medicine for both diagnosis and treatment. An imaging tracer made with radionuclides is called a radioactive tracer. A pharmaceutical drug made with radionuclides is called a radiopharmaceutical.

Americium-241 capsule as found in smoke detector. The circle of darker metal in the center is americium-241; the surrounding casing is aluminium.

Radionuclides are present in many homes as they are used inside the most common household smoke detectors. The radionuclide used is americium-241, which is created by bombarding plutonium with neutrons in a nuclear reactor. It decays by emitting alpha particles and gamma radiation to become neptunium-237. Smoke detectors use a very small quantity of 241Am (about 0.29 micrograms per smoke detector) in the form of americium dioxide. 241Am is used as it emits alpha particles which ionize the air in the detector's ionization chamber. A small electric voltage is applied to the ionized air which gives rise to a small electric current. In the presence of smoke, some of the ions are neutralized, thereby decreasing the current, which activates the detector's alarm.[13][14]

Impacts on organisms

Radionuclides that find their way into the environment may cause harmful effects as radioactive contamination. They can also cause damage if they are excessively used during treatment or in other ways exposed to living beings, by radiation poisoning. Potential health damage from exposure to radionuclides depends on a number of factors, and "can damage the functions of healthy tissue/organs. Radiation exposure can produce effects ranging from skin redness and hair loss, to radiation burns and acute radiation syndrome. Prolonged exposure can lead to cells being damaged and in turn lead to cancer. Signs of cancerous cells might not show up until years, or even decades, after exposure."[15]

Summary table for classes of nuclides, "stable" and radioactive

Following is a summary table for the total list of nuclides with half-lives greater than one hour. Ninety of these 989 nuclides are theoretically stable, except to proton-decay (which has never been observed). About 252 nuclides have never been observed to decay, and are classically considered stable.

The remaining tabulated radionuclides have half-lives longer than 1 hour, and are well-characterized (see list of nuclides for a complete tabulation). They include 30 nuclides with measured half-lives longer than the estimated age of the universe (13.8 billion years[16]), and another 4 nuclides with half-lives long enough (> 100 million years) that they are radioactive primordial nuclides, and may be detected on Earth, having survived from their presence in interstellar dust since before the formation of the solar system, about 4.6 billion years ago. Another 60+ short-lived nuclides can be detected naturally as daughters of longer-lived nuclides or cosmic-ray products. The remaining known nuclides are known solely from artificial nuclear transmutation.

Numbers are not exact, and may change slightly in the future, as "stable nuclides" are observed to be radioactive with very long half-lives.

This is a summary table[17] for the 989 nuclides with half-lives longer than one hour (including those that are stable), given in list of nuclides.

Stability class Number of nuclides Running total Notes on running total
Theoretically stable to all but proton decay 90 90 Includes first 40 elements. Proton decay yet to be observed.
Theoretically stable to alpha decay, beta decay, isomeric transition, and double beta decay but not spontaneous fission, which is possible for "stable" nuclides ≥ niobium-93 56 146 All nuclides that are possibly completely stable (spontaneous fission has never been observed for nuclides with mass number < 232).
Energetically unstable to one or more known decay modes, but no decay yet seen. All considered "stable" until decay detected. 106 252 Total of classically stable nuclides.
Radioactive primordial nuclides. 34 286 Total primordial elements include uranium, thorium, bismuth, rubidium-87, potassium-40, te

Radionuclides are present in many homes as they are used inside the most common household smoke detectors. The radionuclide used is americium-241, which is created by bombarding plutonium with neutrons in a nuclear reactor. It decays by emitting alpha particles and gamma radiation to become neptunium-237. Smoke detectors use a very small quantity of 241Am (about 0.29 micrograms per smoke detector) in the form of americium dioxide. 241Am is used as it emits alpha particles which ionize the air in the detector's ionization chamber. A small electric voltage is applied to the ionized air which gives rise to a small electric current. In the presence of smoke, some of the ions are neutralized, thereby decreasing the current, which activates the detector's alarm.[13][14]

Impacts on organisms

Radionuclides that find their way into the environment may cause harmful effects as radioactive contamination. They can also cause damage if they are excessively used during treatment or in other ways exposed to living beings, by radiation poisoning. Potential health damage from exposure to radionuclides depends on a number of factors, and "can damage the functions of healthy tissue/organs. Radiation exposure can produce effects ranging from skin redness and hair loss, to radiation burns and acute radiation syndrome. Prolonged exposure can lead to cells being damaged and in turn lead to cancer. Signs of cancerous cells might not show up until years, or even decades, after exposure."[15]

Summary table for classes of nuclides, "stable" and radioactive

Following is a summary table for the total list of nuclides wi

Radionuclides that find their way into the environment may cause harmful effects as radioactive contamination. They can also cause damage if they are excessively used during treatment or in other ways exposed to living beings, by radiation poisoning. Potential health damage from exposure to radionuclides depends on a number of factors, and "can damage the functions of healthy tissue/organs. Radiation exposure can produce effects ranging from skin redness and hair loss, to radiation burns and acute radiation syndrome. Prolonged exposure can lead to cells being damaged and in turn lead to cancer. Signs of cancerous cells might not show up until years, or even decades, after exposure."[15]

Summary table for classes of nuclides, "stable" and radioactive[Following is a summary table for the total list of nuclides with half-lives greater than one hour. Ninety of these 989 nuclides are theoretically stable, except to proton-decay (which has never been observed). About 252 nuclides have never been observed to decay, and are classically considered stable.

The remaining tabulated radionuclides have half-lives longer than 1 hour, and are well-characterized (see list of nuclides for a complete tabulation). They include 30 nuclides with measured half-lives longer than the estimated age of the universe (13.8 billion years[16]), and another 4 nuclides with half-lives long enough (> 100 million years) that they are radioactive list of nuclides for a complete tabulation). They include 30 nuclides with measured half-lives longer than the estimated age of the universe (13.8 billion years[16]), and another 4 nuclides with half-lives long enough (> 100 million years) that they are radioactive primordial nuclides, and may be detected on Earth, having survived from their presence in interstellar dust since before the formation of the solar system, about 4.6 billion years ago. Another 60+ short-lived nuclides can be detected naturally as daughters of longer-lived nuclides or cosmic-ray products. The remaining known nuclides are known solely from artificial nuclear transmutation.

Numbers are not exact, and may change slightly in the future, as "stable nuclides" are observed to be radioactive with very long half-lives.

This is a summary table[17] for the 989 nuclides with half-lives longer than one hour (including those that are stable), given in list of nuclides.

This list covers common isotopes, most of which are available in very small quantities to the general public in most countries. Others that are not publicly accessible are traded commercially in industrial, medical, and scientific fields and are subject to government regulation.

Gamma emission only

Isotope Activity Half-life Energies (keV)
Barium-133 9694 TBq/kg (262 Ci/g) 10.7 years 81.0, 356.0
Cadmium-109 96200 TBq/kg (2600 Ci/g) 453 days 88.0
Cobalt-57 312280 TBq/kg (8440 Ci/g) 270 days 122.1
Cobalt-60 40700 TBq/kg (1100 Ci/g) 5.27 years 1173.2, 1332.5
Europium-152 6660 TBq/kg (180 Ci/g) 13.5 years 121.8, 344.3, 1408.0
Manganese-54 287120 TBq/kg (7760 Ci/g) 312 days 834.8
Sodium-22 237540 Tbq/kg (6240 Ci/g) 2.6 years 511.0, 1274.5
Zinc-65 304510 TBq/kg (8230 Ci/g) 244 days 511.0, 1115.5
Technetium-99m 1.95×107 TBq/kg (5.27 × 105 Ci/g) 6 hours 140

Beta emission only

Isotope Activity Half-life Energies (keV)
Strontium-90 5180 TBq/kg (140 Ci/g) 28.5 years 546.0
Thallium-204 17057 TBq/kg (461 Ci/g) 3.78 years 763.4
Carbon-14 166.5 TBq/kg (4.5 Ci/g) 5730 years 49.5 (average)
Tritium (Hydrogen-3) 357050 TBq/kg (9650 Ci/g) 12.32 years 5.7 (average)

Alpha emission only

Isotope Activity Half-life Energies (keV)