A radionuclide is an atom with an unstable nucleus, which is a nucleus characterized by excess energy which is available to be imparted either to a newly-created radiation particle within the nucleus, or else to an atomic electron. The radionuclide, in this process, undergoes radioactive decay, and emits a gamma ray(s) and/or subatomic particles. These particles constitute ionizing radiation. Radionuclides may occur naturally, but can also be artificially produced.
The number of radionuclides is uncertain because the number of very short-lived radionuclides that have yet to be characterized is extremely large and potentially unquantifiable. Even the number of long-lived radionuclides is uncertain (to a smaller degree), because many "stable" nuclides are calculated to have half lives so long that their decay has not been experimentally measured. The nuclide list contain 90 nuclides that are theoretically stable, and 255 total stable nuclides that have not been observed to decay. In addition, there exist about 650 radionuclides that have been experimentally observed to decay, with half lives longer than 60 minutes (see list of nuclides for this list). Of these, about 339 are known from nature (they have been observed on Earth, and not as a consequence of man-made activities).
Including artificially produced nuclides, more than 3300 nuclides are known (including ~3000 radionuclides), including many more (> ~2400) that have decay half lives shorter than 60 minutes. This list expands as new radionuclides with very short half lives are characterized.
Radionuclides are often referred to by chemists and physicists, as radioactive isotopes or radioisotopes. Radioisotopes with suitable half lives play an important part in a number of constructive technologies (for example, nuclear medicine). However, radionuclides can also present both real and perceived dangers to health.
Naturally occurring radionuclides fall into three categories: primordial radionuclides, secondary radionuclides and cosmogenic radionuclides. Primordial radionuclides originate mainly from the interiors of stars and, like uranium and thorium, are still present because their half-lives are so long that they have not yet completely decayed. Secondary radionuclides are radiogenic isotopes derived from the decay of primordial radionuclides. They have shorter half-lives than primordial radionuclides. Cosmogenic isotopes, such as carbon-14, are present because they are continually being formed in the atmosphere due to cosmic rays.
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