The actinide series derives its name from the first element in the series, actinium. The informal chemical symbol An is used in general discussions of actinide chemistry to refer to any actinide. All but one of the actinides are f-block elements, corresponding to the filling of the 5f electron shell; lawrencium, a d-block element, is also generally considered an actinide. In comparison with the lanthanides, also mostly f-block elements, the actinides show much more variable valence. They all have very large atomic and ionic radius and exhibit an unusually large range of physical properties. While actinium and the late actinides (from americium onwards) behave similarly to the lanthanides, the elements thorium through neptunium are much more similar to transition metals in their chemistry.
Of the actinides, primordial thorium and uranium occur naturally in substantial quantities and small amounts of persisting natural plutonium have also been identified. The radioactive decay of uranium produces transient amounts of actinium and protactinium, and atoms of neptunium, americium, curium, berkelium and californium are occasionally produced from transmutation reactions in uranium ores. The other actinides are purely synthetic elements. Nuclear weapons tests have released at least six actinides heavier than plutonium into the environment; analysis of debris from a 1952 hydrogen bomb explosion showed the presence of americium, curium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium and fermium.
All actinides are radioactive and release energy upon radioactive decay; naturally occurring uranium and thorium, and synthetically produced plutonium are the most abundant actinides on Earth. These are used in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. Uranium and thorium also have diverse current or historical uses, and americium is used in the ionization chambers of most modern smoke detectors.