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Facts


People have been using uranium for millennia. In ancient Rome and during the Middle Ages, it was used as a colouring agent in ceramic glazes and glass. It produced hues from orange-red to lemon-yellow.

For many years from the 1940s, virtually all of the uranium that was mined was used in the production of nuclear weapons, but this ceased in the 1970s.

Uranium’s decay product radium was used in luminous paint, particularly on the dials of watches and aircraft instruments up to the 1950s, and in medicine for the treatment of disease.

Today, uranium is mostly used as fuel for nuclear power plants. One kilogram of natural uranium U-235 has the capacity to produce as much energy as 1,400,000 kilograms (1,400 tonnes) of coal.

Word Origin: Uranium is named after the planet Uranus, which was newly discovered when the element was identified in 1789. The planet is named after the Greek god of the sky or heaven.

Discovery: Martin Heinrich Klaproth, a German chemist, is generally credited with identifying uranium as an element while experimenting with pitchblende (primarily a mix of uranium oxides) in 1789. Although Klaproth, as well as the rest of the scientific community, believed that the substance he extracted from pitchblende was pure uranium, it was actually uranium dioxide (UO2). After noticing that 'pure' uranium reacted oddly with uranium tetrachloride (UCl4), Eugène-Melchoir Péligot, a French chemist isolated pure uranium by heating uranium dioxide with potassium in a platinum crucible.

PROPERTIES

Pure uranium is a silvery white metal. It is weakly radioactive. Pure uranium metal is malleable, ductile, slightly paramagnetic, and strongly electropositive. It is a poor electrical conductor. It is harder than most other elements, though a little softer than steel, and has a very high density — about 70% denser than lead and slightly less dense than gold. Uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element available in large quantities. Uranium metal has three crystallographic modifications: alpha, beta and gamma. [See Periodic Table of the Elements]

Processed uranium, uranium oxide concentrate U3O8 (yellow cake) is sometimes yellow but more often dark green, brown, or even black, has a sand-like consistency and is heavy. It can’t blow around and it is not soluble in water.

SOURCE

Uranium is a naturally-occurring element in the Earth’s crust. Uranium is widespread in rocks, rivers, streams and seawater. However, like other metals, it is seldom sufficiently concentrated to be economically recoverable. Where it is, we speak of an ore body. In defining what ore is, assumptions are made about the cost of mining and the market price of the metal. Uranium resources are therefore calculated as tonnes recoverable up to a certain cost.

Australia's recoverable uranium resources are about 31% of the world's total. Canada was the world's leading producer to 2008 when it was overtaken by Kazakhstan. Other countries with known resources include the Russian Federation, the United States, South Africa, Namibia, Niger, Brazil and Ukraine. Many more countries have smaller deposits which could be mined.

Uranium is sold only to countries which are signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and which allow international inspection to verify that it is used only for peaceful purposes.

WHAT IS URANIUM USED FOR?

Uranium is used mainly to make electricity. It can also be used for other things like medical treatment and research and in some manufacturing. Australian uranium is not used to make nuclear weapons. The Australian Government has agreements in place so Australian uranium is sold only to countries for making electricity and other peaceful purposes.

DOES AUSTRALIA USE URANIUM?

Unlike other countries, Australia does not have nuclear power reactors, nor are there any plans to build any in Australia. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) has a small research reactor in Sydney that uses uranium for research and to make radiopharmaceuticals for cancer detection and treatment.

The reactor is used to make a wide range of products for health, research and electronics. ANSTO is known around the world for developing peaceful applications of uranium.

Examples include:

Radioisotopes

Uranium is used to make drugs designed to both find out what is wrong with a person and then to help them get better.

Using radioactive chemicals a doctor can see the inside of a patient’s body without surgery, as happens with x-rays to see broken bones. This exposure to radiation occurs in low levels so the patient is not harmed.

Radiotherapy – using radiation to fight cancer – is another way uranium is used in medicine. Again, this is done in a controlled way to ensure the patient’s wellbeing.

Research

The rays from a nuclear reaction can also be used in research. They can work out the age of rocks and fossils or help people learn about the structure of different materials or how to make cement stronger.

Germs can be killed by irradiating medical supplies like bandages and cotton tips. Food can also be irradiated to kill bugs and keep it fresher for longer.

Electronics

Irradiation of silicon is essential for the production of electronics like computers, air-conditioners or microwaves. ANSTO is a world leader for this kind of work.

AMAZING FACTS
  • In 2012-13, Australia exported 8,291 tonnes of uranium oxide concentrate valued at more than $800 million. This amount of uranium generated the same amount of electricity as Australia’s entire electricity production of 253TWh.
  • Hot rocks geothermal energy is generated by the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in the Earth’s interior and is therefore a form of nuclear energy.
  • Natural uranium ore has been known to fission spontaneously. The Oklo Fossil Reactors of Gabon, West Africa, contain 15 ancient inactive natural nuclear fission reactors. The natural ore fissioned back at a prehistoric time when 3% of the natural uranium existed as uranium-235, which was a high enough percentage to support a sustained nuclear fission chain reaction.