ACHRE Report


The Atomic Century

Before the Atomic Age: "Shadow Pictures," Radioisotopes, and the Beginnings of Human Radiation Experimentation

The Manhattan Project: A New and Secret World of Human Experimentation

The Atomic Energy Commission and Postwar Biomedical Radiation Research

The Transformation in Government - Sponsored Research

The Aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Emergence of the Cold War Radiation Research Bureaucracy

New Ethical Questions for Medical Researchers


The Basics of Radiation Science

What Is Ionizing Radiation?

What Is Radioactivity?

What Are Atomic Number and Atomic Weight?

Radioisotopes: What Are They and How Are They Made?

How Does Radiation Affect Humans?

How Do We Measure the Biological Effects of External Radiation?

How Do We Measure the Biological Effects of Internal Emitters?

How Do Scientists Determine the Long-Term Risks from Radiation?

Radioisotopes: What Are They and How Are They Made?

What are isotopes?

The isotopes of an element are all the atoms that have in their nucleus the number of protons (atomic number) corresponding to the chemical behavior of that element. However, the isotopes of a single element vary in the number of neutrons in their nuclei. Since they still have the same number of protons, all these isotopes of an element have identical chemical behavior. But since they have different numbers of neutrons, these isotopes of the same element may have different radioactivity. An isotope that is radioactive is called a radioisotope or radionuclide. Two examples may help clarify this.

The most stable isotope of uranium, U-238, has an atomic number of 92 (protons) and an atomic weight of 238 (92 protons plus 146 neutrons). The isotope of uranium of greatest importance in atomic bombs, U-235, though, has three fewer neutrons. Thus, it also has an atomic number of 92 (since the number of protons has not changed) but an atomic weight of 235 (92 protons plus only 143 neutrons). The chemical behavior of U-235 is identical to all other forms of uranium, but its nucleus is less stable, giving it higher radioactivity and greater susceptibility to the chain reactions that power both atomic bombs and nuclear fission reactors.

Another example is iodine, an element essential for health; insufficient iodine in one's diet can lead to a goiter. Iodine also is one of the earliest elements whose radioisotopes were used in what is now called nuclear medicine. The most common, stable form of iodine has an atomic number of 53 (protons) and an atomic weight of 127 (53 protons plus 74 neutrons). Because its nucleus has the "correct" number of neutrons, it is stable and is not radioactive. A less stable form of iodine also has 53 protons (this is what makes it behave chemically as iodine) but four extra neutrons, for a total atomic weight of 131 (53 protons and 78 neutrons). With "too many" neutrons in its nucleus, it is unstable and radioactive, with a half-life of eight days. Because it behaves chemically as iodine, it travels throughout the body and localizes in the thyroid gland just like the stable form of iodine. But, because it is radioactive, its presence can be detected. Iodine 131 thus became one of the earliest radioactive tracers.

How can different isotopes of an element be produced?

How can isotopes be produced--especially radioisotopes, which can serve many useful purposes? There are two basic methods: separation and synthesis.

Some isotopes occur in nature. If radioactive, these usually are radioisotopes with very long half-lives. Uranium 235, for example, makes up about 0.7 percent of the naturally occurring uranium on the earth.[89] The challenge is to separate this very small amount from the much larger bulk of other forms of uranium. The difficulty is that all these forms of uranium, because they all have the same number of electrons, will have identical chemical behavior: they will bind in identical fashion to other atoms. Chemical separation, developing a chemical reaction that will bind only uranium atoms, will separate out uranium atoms, but not distinguish among different isotopes of uranium. The only difference among the uranium isotopes is their atomic weight. A method had to be developed that would sort atoms according to weight.

One initial proposal was to use a centrifuge. The basic idea is simple: spin the uranium atoms as if they were on a very fast merry-go-round. The heavier ones will drift toward the outside faster and can be drawn off. In practice the technique was an enormous challenge: the goal was to draw off that very small portion of uranium atoms that were lighter than their brethren. The difficulties were so enormous the plan was abandoned in 1942.[90] Instead, the technique of gaseous diffusion was developed. Again, the basic idea was very simple: the rate at which gas passed (diffused) through a filter depended on the weight of the gas molecules: lighter molecules diffused more quickly. Gas molecules that contained U-235 would diffuse slightly faster than gas molecules containing the more common but also heavier U-238. This method also presented formidable technical challenges, but was eventually implemented in the gigantic gas diffusion plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In this process, the uranium was chemically combined with fluorine to form a hexafluoride gas prior to separation by diffusion. This is not a practical method for extracting radioisotopes for scientific and medical use. It was extremely expensive and could only supply naturally occurring isotopes.

A more efficient approach is to artificially manufacture radioisotopes. This can be done by firing high-speed particles into the nucleus of an atom. When struck, the nucleus may absorb the particle or become unstable and emit a particle. In either case, the number of particles in the nucleus would be altered, creating an isotope. One source of high-speed particles could be a cyclotron. A cyclotron accelerates particles around a circular race track with periodic pushes of an electric field. The particles gather speed with each push, just as a child swings higher with each push on a swing. When traveling fast enough, the particles are directed off the race track and into the target.

A cyclotron works only with charged particles, however. Another source of bullets are the neutrons already shooting about inside a nuclear reactor. The neutrons normally strike the nuclei of the fuel, making them unstable and causing the nuclei to split (fission) into two large fragments and two to three "free" neutrons. These free neutrons in turn make additional nuclei unstable, causing further fission. The result is a chain reaction. Too many neutrons can lead to an uncontrolled chain reaction, releasing too much heat and perhaps causing a "meltdown." Therefore, "surplus" neutrons are usually absorbed by "control rods." However, these surplus neutrons can also be absorbed by targets of carefully selected material placed in the reactor. In this way the surplus neutrons are used to create radioactive isotopes of the materials placed in the targets.

With practice, scientists using both cyclotrons and reactors have learned the proper mix of target atoms and shooting particles to "cook up" a wide variety of useful radioisotopes.

back table of contents forward