The atomic nucleus of any element is made up of protons, which have a positive charge, and neutrons, which have no charge. Each atom of an element always has the same number of protons. But, different varieties of the element, called “isotopes,” may have different numbers of neutrons. So, an atom of hydrogen will always have one proton, but can have one, two, or even three neutrons.
Radioactive isotopes, or radioisotopes, are isotopes of an element having an unstable nucleus that decays (emitting alpha, beta, or gamma rays) until stability is reached. The stable end product is a nonradioactive isotope of another element. Uranium (U) is a metallic, silver-gray element that is a member of the actinide series. The radioisotope Uranium-238 has 3 more neutrons than Uranium and decays to Lead-206.
Since small traces of radioactive isotopes can be detected to a high degree of precision, they have various uses in medical therapy, diagnostics, and research. Domestic sources of radioisotopes are needed to adequately sustain the growing use of this technology to ensure our productivity, security and competitiveness and to meet the growing needs of our medical and healthcare communities.
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- Promising research, in areas such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis, has been delayed or abandoned because certain radioisotopes have been unavailable.
- Geologists, archaeologists and police rely on radioisotopes to determine the age and chemical composition of materials.
- Biologists explore the use of radiation in food preservation and in agriculture to develop better fertilizers, control insects and improve plant breeds.
Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information of the American Nuclear Society
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