Cobalt-60 (60Co) is a synthetic radioactive isotope of cobalt with a half-life of 5.2713 years. It is produced artificially in nuclear reactors. Deliberate industrial production depends on neutron activation of bulk samples of the monoisotopic and mononuclidic cobalt isotope 59
. Measurable quantities are also produced as a by-product of typical nuclear power plant operation and may be detected externally when leaks occur. In the latter case (in the absence of added cobalt) the incidentally produced 60
is largely the result of multiple stages of neutron activation of iron isotopes in the reactor's steel structures via the creation of its 59
precursor. The simplest case of the latter would result from the activation of 58
decays by beta decay to the stable isotope nickel-60 (60
). The activated nickel nucleus emits two gamma rays with energies of 1.17 and 1.33 MeV, hence the overall nuclear equation of the reaction is 59
+ n → 60
+ e− +
e + gamma rays.
|Isotope mass||59.9338222 u|
|Decay mode||Decay energy (MeV)|
|β (beta decay)||0.317|
|Isotopes of cobalt |
Complete table of nuclides
Corresponding to its half-life, the radioactive activity of one gram of 60
is 44 TBq (about 1100 curies). The absorbed dose constant is related to the decay energy and time. For 60
it is equal to 0.35 mSv/(GBq h) at one meter from the source. This allows calculation of the equivalent dose, which depends on distance and activity.
For example, a 60
source with an activity of 2.8 GBq, which is equivalent to 60 µg of pure 60
, generates a dose of 1 mSv at one meter distance within one hour. The swallowing of 60
reduces the distance to a few millimeters, and the same dose is achieved within seconds.
Test sources, such as those used for school experiments, have an activity of <100 kBq. Devices for nondestructive material testing use sources with activities of 1 TBq and more.
The high γ-energies result in a significant mass difference between 60
of 0.003 u. This amounts to nearly 20 watts per gram, nearly 30 times larger than that of 238
The diagram shows a (simplified) decay scheme of 60
. The main β-decay transitions are shown. The probability for population of the middle energy level of 2.1 MeV by β-decay is 0.0022%, with a maximum energy of 665.26 keV. Energy transfers between the three levels generate six different gamma-ray frequencies. In the diagram the two important ones are marked. Internal conversion energies are well below the main energy levels.
is a nuclear isomer of 60
with a half-life of 10.467 minutes. It decays by internal transition to 60
, emitting 58.6 keV gamma rays, or with a low probability (0.22%) by β-decay into 60
The main advantage of 60
is that it is a high intensity gamma-ray emitter with a relatively long half-life, 5.27 years, compared to other gamma ray sources of similar intensity. The β-decay energy is low and easily shielded; however, the gamma-ray emission lines have energies around 1.3 MeV, and are highly penetrating. The physical properties of cobalt such as resistance to bulk oxidation and low solubility in water give some advantages in safety in the case of a containment breach over some other gamma sources such as caesium-137. The main uses for 60
- As a tracer for cobalt in chemical reactions
- Sterilization of medical equipment.
- Radiation source for medical radiotherapy. Cobalt therapy, using beams of gamma rays from 60
teletherapy machines to treat cancer.
- Radiation source for industrial radiography.
- Radiation source for leveling devices and thickness gauges.
- Radiation source for pest insect sterilization.
- As a radiation source for food irradiation and blood irradiation.
Cobalt has been discussed as a "salting" element to add to nuclear weapons, to produce a cobalt bomb, an extremely "dirty" weapon which would contaminate large areas with 60
nuclear fallout, rendering them uninhabitable. In one hypothetical design, the tamper of the weapon would be made of 59
. When the bomb exploded, the excess neutrons from the nuclear fission would irradiate the cobalt and transmute it into 60
. No nation is known to have done any serious development of this type of weapon.
There is no natural 60
in existence on earth; thus, synthetic 60
is created by bombarding a 59
target with a slow neutron source. Californium-252, moderated through water, can be used for this purpose, as can the neutron flux in a nuclear reactor. The CANDU reactors can be used to activate 59
, by substituting the stainless steel control rods with cobalt rods. In the United States, it is now being produced in a BWR at Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station. The cobalt targets are substituted here for a small number of fuel assemblies.
+ n → 60
After entering a living mammal (such as a human being), some of the 60
is excreted in feces. The remainder is taken up by tissues, mainly the liver, kidneys, and bones, where the prolonged exposure to gamma radiation can cause cancer. Over time, the absorbed cobalt is eliminated in urine.
Around 1983, construction was finished of 1700 apartments in Taiwan which were built with steel contaminated with cobalt-60. Approximately 10,000 people occupied these buildings during a 9–20 year period. On average, these people received a radiation dose of 0.4 Sv, unknowingly. This large group did not suffer a higher incidence of cancer mortality, as the LNT theory would predict, but suffered a lower cancer mortality than the general Taiwan public. These observations appear to be compatible with the radiation hormesis model.
In August 2012, Petco recalled several models of steel pet food bowls after US Customs and Border Protection determined that they were emitting low levels of radiation. The source of the radiation was determined to be 60
that had contaminated the steel.
Incidents involving medical radiation sourcesEdit
In the Samut Prakan radiation accident in 2000, a disused radiotherapy head containing a 60
source was stored at an unsecured location in Bangkok, Thailand and then accidentally sold to scrap collectors. Unaware of the dangers, a junkyard employee dismantled the head and extracted the source, which remained unprotected for a period of days at the junkyard. Ten people, including the scrap collectors and workers at the junkyard, were exposed to high levels of radiation and became ill. Three of the junkyard workers subsequently died as a result of their exposure, which was estimated to be over 6 Gy. Afterward, the source was safely recovered by the Thai authorities.
In December 2013, a truck carrying a disused 111 TBq 60Co teletherapy source from a hospital in Tijuana to a radioactive waste storage center was hijacked at a gas station near Mexico City. The truck was recovered shortly after, but it was discovered that the thieves had removed the source from its shielding. It was found abandoned and intact in a field close by. Despite early reports with lurid headlines asserting that the thieves were "likely doomed", the radiation sickness was mild enough that the suspects were quickly released to police custody, and no one is known to have died from the incident.
In the Wu experiment her group aligned radioactive 60
nuclei by cooling the source to low temperatures in a magnetic field. Wu's observation was that more β-rays were emitted in the opposite direction to the nuclear spin. This asymmetry violates parity conservation.
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|Cobalt-60 is an
isotope of cobalt
|Decay product of:
|Decays to: |