Uranium is a naturally-occurring mineral with a fascinating history, its usage evolving over time from ancient body paint, weapons of mass destruction, and a source of modern nuclear power.
The Kinvestor Network recently released a report on the global uranium industry. Download the free report here for a full analysis of the global uranium industry.
What is Uranium?
Classified as a dense, malleable, hard mineral, the uranium atom has 92 electrons and 92 protons and is assigned the chemical symbol U on the periodic table. 500 times more common than gold but less common than copper, nickel, or zinc, this naturally-occurring element never occurs in nature in its metallic state. Rather, it is always found in oxides or silicates as a combination with oxygen. It can be found in oceans, streams, and ground water; in most soils and rocks; and even in foods and human tissue.
Uranium mainly occurs in two isotopes: the more common uranium-238 (99.3% of Earth’s uranium) and less common uranium-235 (0.7%), which is fissile. Although uranium-235 was at one time as abundant in the Earth as uranium-238, it has a shorter half-life (around 700 million years) compared to the more common uranium-238 (around 4.5 billion years).
Discovery of Uranium
Although uranium was first identified in 1789 by Martin Klaproth within the mineral pitchblende, it was used historically by the ancient Romans to tint glass and by Indigenous Americans in the southwestern United States for art and body paint. The metal itself was first isolated in 1841 by French chemist Eugène-Melchior Péligot when he reduced uranium tetrachloride (UCl4) with potassium, but it wasn’t until 1896, when Henri Becquerel used uranium and radium to discover alpha and beta rays, that uranium’s radioactive properties were discovered.
The 1930s and 40s were formative for uranium as scientists made more discoveries about the neutron, nuclear fission, and discovered how to produce nuclear energy, and in 1942 the Manhattan Project began building the world’s first atomic bomb. In 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, ending WWII and sparking the Cold War arms race between the U.S. and Russia, as both countries raced to arm themselves with nuclear weapons.
By 1939, scientists had already discovered that uranium fission can cause a chain reaction, thereby creating nuclear energy, but it wasn’t until after the war that nuclear reactions were seen as a viable option for energy production. In 1951, the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) in Idaho generated the first electricity created by nuclear power, and in 1956 the world’s first commercial nuclear power station opened in England. The next year, the United Nations formed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “to promote nuclear power and stop the spread of nuclear weapons.”
History of Uranium Mining
Part of the controversy surrounding uranium comes from its mining history; however, much has changed since mining for uranium first began thanks to operational safety measures and international regulations.
Uranium was first mined in the Czech Republic to source uranium for Marie and Pierre Curie’s studies on radium isolation. Upon the discovery of nuclear fission and the creation of the atomic bomb leading up to and during WWII, uranium mining began on a much larger scale as demand skyrocketed. In 1944, the United States created the Combined Development Trust (CDT) to fund the purchase of over 3.4 million pounds of uranium from what was then the Belgian Congo. Canadian and American companies also purchased smaller amounts from uranium mines in the Belgian Congo around that time.
The largest uranium mine in the Belgian Congo was the Shinkolobwe Mine owned by the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (Mining Union of Upper Katanga). Sub-standard health and safety standards, limited knowledge of radiation exposure, and early uranium mining techniques made working in early mines unsafe, spurring governments and mining companies to develop new policies that would protect workers, communities, and the environment.
Modern Uranium Mining
Today, much has changed in uranium mining. According to the World Nuclear Association, Canada and Australia, two of today’s top uranium producers, have some of the most “comprehensive and stringent in the world.” Radiation safety procedures from the International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP) recommend that radiation from uranium mining be limited to 1 millisieverts per year (mSv/yr) for the general public and 20 mSv/yr for radiation workers, well below the threshold of 100 mSv/yr before any risk of cancer or immediate effects from radiation poisoning, according to scientific evidence. Compare this to estimates of radiation in East German mines in the early days of uranium mining, which averaged 750 mSv/yr.
According to the World Nuclear Association, today’s open cut uranium mining operations virtually eliminate the danger of radiation poisoning and other health risks associated with uranium mining in the past, stating that “aside from radiation, the occupational health and safety hazards of modern uranium mining are no greater than, nor distinct from, other comparable mining operations.” Not only is mining uranium no more dangerous than other forms of mining, but according to a paper from NASA’s Goddard Institute from 2013, former NASA scientist James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha at the Goddard Institute estimated that the use of nuclear power has prevented nearly 2 million deaths that would have occurred had that power been generated by burning fossil fuels, making it one of the safest forms of energy production.
As the need for clean energy becomes increasingly recognized by nations around the world, global leaders have created the Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy Future (NICE) initiative, a global initiative that aims to bring nuclear energy into the clean energy conversation. Led by the United States, Canada, and Japan, the initiative is also supported by countries like Argentina, Brazil, France, Jordan, Kenya, Poland, Romania, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.
The Kinvestor Network recently released a report on the global uranium industry covering the history and uses of uranium, analysis of current market data, and an outlook for the future of uranium exploration and production. Download the free Kinvestor Research report here for a full analysis of the global uranium industry.
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