Uranium Unveiled: What Are Its Uses?

Scientists and students see it on the periodic table—atomic number 92, chemical symbol U. Uranium, named after the planet Uranus, is a naturally occurring radioactive element found in soil rock and water. It’s the 48th most abundant element found in natural crustal rock.

A uranium glass lid purchased at a garage sale. UO2 causes the piece to fluoresce. Photo by Beeblaine

But did you know that uranium’s potential as an energy source was discovered only in the mid-20th century? Before its radioactive properties were recognised, uranium was used to tint glass and ceramics. It has a greenish and yellowish tint which, when exposed to UV light, turns fluorescent green or blue. Photographers also used uranium as a toner for their prints. It can turn blacks and silvers into reddish brown and platinum prints to blue, green and red tones.

Discovery of Uranium

German chemist Martin Klaproth discovered this radioactive element in 1789 while analysing mineral samples from silver mines in the present day Czech Republic. 

Uranium ore

But it was in 1896 that French physicist Henri Becquerel accidentally discovered uranium’s radioactive properties. He was investigating X-rays before he studied how uranium salts are affected by light.

When he placed uranium salts on top of a photographic plate wrapped in black paper, he saw that there were still black spots on the plate. This meant that the salts emitted radiation that passed through the black paper.

After Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre continued the studies and eventually shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics with Becquerel.

Uranium and Nuclear Power

An essential element in nuclear reactors, one ton of natural uranium can produce about 44 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. 

Before it can generate heat and boil water into steam, the mined uranium goes through a process called enrichment, which increases the uranium-235 concentration from 0.7% to 3 to 5%. 

After that, the uranium is converted to powder that will be pressed to form small pellets. These pellets are then inserted into fuel rods that will be assembled onto the reactor.

Countries with Uranium Resources

Australia has the world’s largest Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) of uranium and is the world’s third largest producer of uranium, according to Geoscience Australia. 

Kazakhstan, Namibia and Canada are the other top uranium producers in the world. Kazakhstan currently has research reactors but does not have any operational nuclear power plants while Canada has 19 CANDU reactors which provides about 15% of Canada’s electricity needs.

Aerial photo of the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station near Kincardine Ontario. Photo by Chuck Szmurlo taken March 15, 2006 with a Nikon D70 and a Nikon 70-200 f2.8 lens.

Real Time Radiation Monitoring in Nuclear Power Plants

In Australia, each state and territory enforces its respective regulations on radiation safety. Organisations or enterprises are then responsible to create and implement and regularly review their radiation management plan. They must comply with regulations and train their workers including contractors. The annual dose limit for occupational exposure is 20 mSv.

For area radiation monitors or personal radiation monitoring devices, you can rely on SensaWeb. With our monitors, you can easily detect and interdict radioactive materials.

Connect with us here or at our email address: info@sensaweb.com.au. You can also call us at +61 415 409 467.

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