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. 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. 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 have no known limits and span 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 (alpha decay or beta decay or double beta decay or 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 the half-life for some such elements, e.g. gold and platinum, are too long to be found).
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.
On Earth, naturally occurring radionuclides fall into three categories: primordial radionuclides, secondary radionuclides, and cosmogenic radionuclides.
Radionuclides are produced in stellar nucleosynthesis and supernova explosions along with stable nuclides. Most decay quickly but can still be observed astronomically and can play a part in understanding astronomic processes. Primordial radionuclides, such as uranium and thorium, exist in the present time because their half-lives are so long (>100 million years) that they have not yet completely decayed. Some radionuclides have half-lives so long (many times the age of the universe) that decay has only recently been detected, and for most practical purposes they can be considered stable, most notably bismuth-209: detection of this decay meant that bismuth was no longer considered stable. It is possible decay may be observed in other nuclides, adding to this list of primordial radionuclides.
Secondary radionuclides are radiogenic isotopes derived from the decay of primordial radionuclides. They have shorter half-lives than primordial radionuclides. They arise in the decay chain of the primordial isotopes thorium-232, uranium-238, and uranium-235. Examples include the natural isotopes of polonium and radium.
Many of these radionuclides exist only in trace amounts in nature, including all cosmogenic nuclides. Secondary radionuclides will occur in proportion to their half-lives, so short-lived ones will be very rare. For example, polonium can be found in uranium ores at about 0.1 mg per metric ton (1 part in 1010). Further radionunclides may occur in nature in virtually undetectable amounts as a result of rare events such as spontaneous fission or uncommon cosmic ray interactions.
Synthetic radionuclides are deliberately synthesised using nuclear reactors, particle accelerators or radionuclide generators:
As well as being extracted from nuclear waste, radioisotopes can be produced deliberately with nuclear reactors, exploiting the high flux of neutrons present. These neutrons activate elements placed within the reactor. A typical product from a nuclear reactor is iridium-192. The elements that have a large propensity to take up the neutrons in the reactor are said to have a high neutron cross-section.
Particle accelerators such as cyclotrons accelerate particles to bombard a target to produce radionuclides. Cyclotrons accelerate protons at a target to produce positron-emitting radionuclides, e.g. fluorine-18.
Radionuclide generators contain a parent radionuclide that decays to produce a radioactive daughter. The parent is usually produced in a nuclear reactor. A typical example is the technetium-99m generator used in nuclear medicine. The parent produced in the reactor is molybdenum-99.