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Uranium is a metallic-white element, number 92 in the periodic table, with the symbol U. It is found in the earth in the form of minerals such as pitchblende, carnotite, and urainite. Attention is focused on uranium because of its central role in the nuclear energy industry. Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered uranium in 1789, naming it after the recently identified planet Uranus. However, it was not isolated until 1841. It is the heaviest naturally occurring element and it exists in 16 different isotopes, which have different configurations of nuclear particles. Naturally occurring uranium consists of a mixture of three of these isotopes, with more than 99 percent being uranium-238. Uranium is radioactive, which means that it emits particles and ultimately deteriorates into lead over thousands of years. The time taken for half of the atoms of uranium in a sample to become lead is called the half-life.
Henri Becquerel discovered the property of radioactivity in 1896. In 1938, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann determined that the slow bombardment of uranium by neutrons could lead to the breakdown of atoms and the emission of additional neutrons, which leads to the chain reaction known as nuclear fission. This atomic technology was rapidly adapted for military purposes and in 1945 the United States exploded two nuclear devices on cities in Japan. As well as furnishing a variety of missiles and weapons, nuclear power was also used to generate electricity and to transport submarines.
Uranium represents approximately two parts in a million of the earth and the uranium-235 isotope is needed for the nuclear fission process. Consequently, although uranium represents a much more productive source of energy than fossil fuels, securing a steady source of the material is expensive and problematic. Uranium is used as the basis for the production of the heavier transuranium products that are used for fission activities. The radioactivity represents a severe health problem for people in the proximity of the metal and the possibility that it can be used as a weapon of unparalleled power means that considerable care must be taken in its sale and transportation.
Speculation surrounds the fate of the uranium used in the former Soviet Union, much of which is believed to be in an insecure situation. In the former Soviet Union, at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, the world’s worst nuclear plant accident occurred and generations of Ukrainians are being poisoned by the still virulent radiation. The danger of further incidents, with the problem of disposing of waste products that remain toxic for thousands of years, continues to bedevil the use of uranium in electricity generation. However, the present rate of global environmental degradation and climate change means that it is likely to remain under consideration for the foreseeable future. Currently, it is estimated that the demand for low-cost uranium supplies for energy production will exceed supply over the next few decades unless significant new deposits are found. This includes secondary sources of uranium, which use recycled uranium in different forms.
- Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org;
- International Atomic Energy Agency, www.iaea.org;
- Broder Merkel and Andrea Hasche-Berger, eds., Uranium in the Environment: Mining Impact and Consequences (Springer, 2005).