Uranium is a chemical element with symbol U and atomic number 92. It is a silvery-grey metal in the actinide series of the periodic table. A uranium atom has 92 protons and 92 electrons, of which 6 are valence electrons. Uranium is weakly radioactive because all isotopes of uranium are unstable, with half-lives varying between 159,200 years and 4.5 billion years. The most common isotopes in natural uranium are uranium-238 (which has 146 neutrons and accounts for over 99%) and uranium-235 (which has 143 neutrons). Uranium has the highest atomic weight of the primordially occurring elements. Its density is about 70% higher than that of lead, and slightly lower than that of gold or tungsten. It occurs naturally in low concentrations of a few parts per million in soil, rock and water, and is commercially extracted from uranium-bearing minerals such as uraninite.
In nature, uranium is found as uranium-238 (99.2739–99.2752%), uranium-235 (0.7198–0.7202%), and a very small amount of uranium-234 (0.0050–0.0059%). Uranium decays slowly by emitting an alpha particle. The half-life of uranium-238 is about 4.47 billion years and that of uranium-235 is 704 million years, making them useful in dating the age of the Earth.
Many contemporary uses of uranium exploit its unique nuclear properties. Uranium-235 is the only naturally occurring fissile isotope, which makes it widely used in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. However, because of the tiny amounts found in nature, uranium needs to undergo enrichment so that enough uranium-235 is present. Uranium-238 is fissionable by fast neutrons, and is fertile, meaning it can be transmuted to fissile plutonium-239 in a nuclear reactor. Another fissile isotope, uranium-233, can be produced from natural thorium and is also important in nuclear technology. Uranium-238 has a small probability for spontaneous fission or even induced fission with fast neutrons; uranium-235 and to a lesser degree uranium-233 have a much higher fission cross-section for slow neutrons. In sufficient concentration, these isotopes maintain a sustained nuclear chain reaction. This generates the heat in nuclear power reactors, and produces the fissile material for nuclear weapons. Depleted uranium (238U) is used in kinetic energy penetrators and armor plating. Uranium is used as a colorant in uranium glass, producing lemon yellow to green colors. Uranium glass fluoresces green in ultraviolet light. It was also used for tinting and shading in early photography.
The 1789 discovery of uranium in the mineral pitchblende is credited to Martin Heinrich Klaproth, who named the new element after the recently discovered planet Uranus. Eugène-Melchior Péligot was the first person to isolate the metal and its radioactive properties were discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel. Research by Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, Enrico Fermi and others, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer starting in 1934 led to its use as a fuel in the nuclear power industry and in Little Boy, the first nuclear weapon used in war. An ensuing arms race during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union produced tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that used uranium metal and uranium-derived plutonium-239. The security of those weapons and their fissile material following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 is an ongoing concern for public health and safety. See Nuclear proliferation.
|Appearance||silvery gray metallic; corrodes to a spalling black oxide coat in air|
|Standard atomic weight Ar, std(U)||238.02891(3)|
|Uranium in the periodic table|
|Atomic number (Z)||92|
|Electron configuration||[Rn] 5f3 6d1 7s2|
Electrons per shell
|2, 8, 18, 32, 21, 9, 2|
|Phase at STP||solid|
|Melting point||1405.3 K (1132.2 °C, 2070 °F)|
|Boiling point||4404 K (4131 °C, 7468 °F)|
|Density (near r.t.)||19.1 g/cm3|
|when liquid (at m.p.)||17.3 g/cm3|
|Heat of fusion||9.14 kJ/mol|
|Heat of vaporization||417.1 kJ/mol|
|Molar heat capacity||27.665 J/(mol·K)|
|Oxidation states||+1, +2, +3, +4, +5, +6 (a weakly basic oxide)|
|Electronegativity||Pauling scale: 1.38|
|Atomic radius||empirical: 156 pm|
|Covalent radius||196±7 pm|
|Van der Waals radius||186 pm|
Spectral lines of uranium
|Crystal structure|| orthorhombic|
|Speed of sound thin rod||3155 m/s (at 20 °C)|
|Thermal expansion||13.9 µm/(m·K) (at 25 °C)|
|Thermal conductivity||27.5 W/(m·K)|
|Electrical resistivity||0.280 µΩ·m (at 0 °C)|
|Young's modulus||208 GPa|
|Shear modulus||111 GPa|
|Bulk modulus||100 GPa|
|Vickers hardness||1960–2500 MPa|
|Brinell hardness||2350–3850 MPa|
|Naming||after planet Uranus, itself named after Greek god of the sky Uranus|
|Discovery||Martin Heinrich Klaproth (1789)|
|First isolation||Eugène-Melchior Péligot (1841)|
|Main isotopes of uranium|
When refined, uranium is a silvery white, weakly radioactive metal. It has a Mohs hardness of 6, sufficient to scratch glass and approximately equal to that of titanium, rhodium, manganese and niobium. It is malleable, ductile, slightly paramagnetic, strongly electropositive and a poor electrical conductor. Uranium metal has a very high density of 19.1 g/cm3, denser than lead (11.3 g/cm3), but slightly less dense than tungsten and gold (19.3 g/cm3).
Uranium metal reacts with almost all non-metal elements (with the exception of the noble gases) and their compounds, with reactivity increasing with temperature. Hydrochloric and nitric acids dissolve uranium, but non-oxidizing acids other than hydrochloric acid attack the element very slowly. When finely divided, it can react with cold water; in air, uranium metal becomes coated with a dark layer of uranium oxide. Uranium in ores is extracted chemically and converted into uranium dioxide or other chemical forms usable in industry.
Uranium-235 was the first isotope that was found to be fissile. Other naturally occurring isotopes are fissionable, but not fissile. On bombardment with slow neutrons, its uranium-235 isotope will most of the time divide into two smaller nuclei, releasing nuclear binding energy and more neutrons. If too many of these neutrons are absorbed by other uranium-235 nuclei, a nuclear chain reaction occurs that results in a burst of heat or (in special circumstances) an explosion. In a nuclear reactor, such a chain reaction is slowed and controlled by a neutron poison, absorbing some of the free neutrons. Such neutron absorbent materials are often part of reactor control rods (see nuclear reactor physics for a description of this process of reactor control).
As little as 15 lb (7 kg) of uranium-235 can be used to make an atomic bomb. The first nuclear bomb used in war, Little Boy, relied on uranium fission, but the very first nuclear explosive (the Gadget used at Trinity) and the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki (Fat Man) were both plutonium bombs.
The major application of uranium in the military sector is in high-density penetrators. This ammunition consists of depleted uranium (DU) alloyed with 1–2% other elements, such as titanium or molybdenum. At high impact speed, the density, hardness, and pyrophoricity of the projectile enable the destruction of heavily armored targets. Tank armor and other removable vehicle armor can also be hardened with depleted uranium plates. The use of depleted uranium became politically and environmentally contentious after the use of such munitions by the US, UK and other countries during wars in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans raised questions concerning uranium compounds left in the soil (see Gulf War Syndrome).
Depleted uranium is also used as a shielding material in some containers used to store and transport radioactive materials. While the metal itself is radioactive, its high density makes it more effective than lead in halting radiation from strong sources such as radium. Other uses of depleted uranium include counterweights for aircraft control surfaces, as ballast for missile re-entry vehicles and as a shielding material. Due to its high density, this material is found in inertial guidance systems and in gyroscopic compasses. Depleted uranium is preferred over similarly dense metals due to its ability to be easily machined and cast as well as its relatively low cost. The main risk of exposure to depleted uranium is chemical poisoning by uranium oxide rather than radioactivity (uranium being only a weak alpha emitter).
During the later stages of World War II, the entire Cold War, and to a lesser extent afterwards, uranium-235 has been used as the fissile explosive material to produce nuclear weapons. Initially, two major types of fission bombs were built: a relatively simple device that uses uranium-235 and a more complicated mechanism that uses plutonium-239 derived from uranium-238. Later, a much more complicated and far more powerful type of fission/fusion bomb (thermonuclear weapon) was built, that uses a plutonium-based device to cause a mixture of tritium and deuterium to undergo nuclear fusion. Such bombs are jacketed in a non-fissile (unenriched) uranium case, and they derive more than half their power from the fission of this material by fast neutrons from the nuclear fusion process.
The main use of uranium in the civilian sector is to fuel nuclear power plants. One kilogram of uranium-235 can theoretically produce about 20 terajoules of energy (2×1013 joules), assuming complete fission; as much energy as 1500 tonnes of coal.
Commercial nuclear power plants use fuel that is typically enriched to around 3% uranium-235. The CANDU and Magnox designs are the only commercial reactors capable of using unenriched uranium fuel. Fuel used for United States Navy reactors is typically highly enriched in uranium-235 (the exact values are classified). In a breeder reactor, uranium-238 can also be converted into plutonium through the following reaction:
The discovery and isolation of radium in uranium ore (pitchblende) by Marie Curie sparked the development of uranium mining to extract the radium, which was used to make glow-in-the-dark paints for clock and aircraft dials. This left a prodigious quantity of uranium as a waste product, since it takes three tonnes of uranium to extract one gram of radium. This waste product was diverted to the glazing industry, making uranium glazes very inexpensive and abundant. Besides the pottery glazes, uranium tile glazes accounted for the bulk of the use, including common bathroom and kitchen tiles which can be produced in green, yellow, mauve, black, blue, red and other colors.
Uranium was also used in photographic chemicals (especially uranium nitrate as a toner), in lamp filaments for stage lighting bulbs, to improve the appearance of dentures, and in the leather and wood industries for stains and dyes. Uranium salts are mordants of silk or wool. Uranyl acetate and uranyl formate are used as electron-dense "stains" in transmission electron microscopy, to increase the contrast of biological specimens in ultrathin sections and in negative staining of viruses, isolated cell organelles and macromolecules.
The discovery of the radioactivity of uranium ushered in additional scientific and practical uses of the element. The long half-life of the isotope uranium-238 (4.51×109 years) makes it well-suited for use in estimating the age of the earliest igneous rocks and for other types of radiometric dating, including uranium–thorium dating, uranium–lead dating and uranium–uranium dating. Uranium metal is used for X-ray targets in the making of high-energy X-rays.
The use of uranium in its natural oxide form dates back to at least the year 79 CE, when it was used to add a yellow color to ceramic glazes. Yellow glass with 1% uranium oxide was found in a Roman villa on Cape Posillipo in the Bay of Naples, Italy, by R. T. Gunther of the University of Oxford in 1912. Starting in the late Middle Ages, pitchblende was extracted from the Habsburg silver mines in Joachimsthal, Bohemia (now Jáchymov in the Czech Republic), and was used as a coloring agent in the local glassmaking industry. In the early 19th century, the world's only known sources of uranium ore were these mines.
The discovery of the element is credited to the German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth. While he was working in his experimental laboratory in Berlin in 1789, Klaproth was able to precipitate a yellow compound (likely sodium diuranate) by dissolving pitchblende in nitric acid and neutralizing the solution with sodium hydroxide. Klaproth assumed the yellow substance was the oxide of a yet-undiscovered element and heated it with charcoal to obtain a black powder, which he thought was the newly discovered metal itself (in fact, that powder was an oxide of uranium). He named the newly discovered element after the planet Uranus (named after the primordial Greek god of the sky), which had been discovered eight years earlier by William Herschel.
In 1841, Eugène-Melchior Péligot, Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (Central School of Arts and Manufactures) in Paris, isolated the first sample of uranium metal by heating uranium tetrachloride with potassium.
Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity by using uranium in 1896. Becquerel made the discovery in Paris by leaving a sample of a uranium salt, K2UO2(SO4)2 (potassium uranyl sulfate), on top of an unexposed photographic plate in a drawer and noting that the plate had become "fogged". He determined that a form of invisible light or rays emitted by uranium had exposed the plate.
A team led by Enrico Fermi in 1934 observed that bombarding uranium with neutrons produces the emission of beta rays (electrons or positrons from the elements produced; see beta particle). The fission products were at first mistaken for new elements with atomic numbers 93 and 94, which the Dean of the Faculty of Rome, Orso Mario Corbino, christened ausonium and hesperium, respectively. The experiments leading to the discovery of uranium's ability to fission (break apart) into lighter elements and release binding energy were conducted by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in Hahn's laboratory in Berlin. Lise Meitner and her nephew, the physicist Otto Robert Frisch, published the physical explanation in February 1939 and named the process "nuclear fission". Soon after, Fermi hypothesized that the fission of uranium might release enough neutrons to sustain a fission reaction. Confirmation of this hypothesis came in 1939, and later work found that on average about 2.5 neutrons are released by each fission of the rare uranium isotope uranium-235. Fermi urged Alfred O. C. Nier to separate uranium isotopes for determination of the fissile component, and on February 29, 1940, Nier used an instrument he built at the University of Minnesota to separate the world's first uranium-235 sample in the Tate Laboratory. After mailed to Columbia University's cyclotron, John Dunning confirmed the sample to be the isolated fissile material on March 1. Further work found that the far more common uranium-238 isotope can be transmuted into plutonium, which, like uranium-235, is also fissile by thermal neutrons. These discoveries led numerous countries to begin working on the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
On 2 December 1942, as part of the Manhattan Project, another team led by Enrico Fermi was able to initiate the first artificial self-sustained nuclear chain reaction, Chicago Pile-1. An initial plan using enriched uranium-235 was abandoned as it was as yet unavailable in sufficient quantities. Working in a lab below the stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, the team created the conditions needed for such a reaction by piling together 400 short tons (360 metric tons) of graphite, 58 short tons (53 metric tons) of uranium oxide, and six short tons (5.5 metric tons) of uranium metal, a majority of which was supplied by Westinghouse Lamp Plant in a makeshift production process.
Two major types of atomic bombs were developed by the United States during World War II: a uranium-based device (codenamed "Little Boy") whose fissile material was highly enriched uranium, and a plutonium-based device (see Trinity test and "Fat Man") whose plutonium was derived from uranium-238. The uranium-based Little Boy device became the first nuclear weapon used in war when it was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Exploding with a yield equivalent to 12,500 tonnes of TNT, the blast and thermal wave of the bomb destroyed nearly 50,000 buildings and killed approximately 75,000 people (see Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Initially it was believed that uranium was relatively rare, and that nuclear proliferation could be avoided by simply buying up all known uranium stocks, but within a decade large deposits of it were discovered in many places around the world.
The X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, formerly known as the Clinton Pile and X-10 Pile, was the world's second artificial nuclear reactor (after Enrico Fermi's Chicago Pile) and was the first reactor designed and built for continuous operation. Argonne National Laboratory's Experimental Breeder Reactor I, located at the Atomic Energy Commission's National Reactor Testing Station near Arco, Idaho, became the first nuclear reactor to create electricity on 20 December 1951. Initially, four 150-watt light bulbs were lit by the reactor, but improvements eventually enabled it to power the whole facility (later, the town of Arco became the first in the world to have all its electricity come from nuclear power generated by BORAX-III, another reactor designed and operated by Argonne National Laboratory). The world's first commercial scale nuclear power station, Obninsk in the Soviet Union, began generation with its reactor AM-1 on 27 June 1954. Other early nuclear power plants were Calder Hall in England, which began generation on 17 October 1956, and the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania, which began on 26 May 1958. Nuclear power was used for the first time for propulsion by a submarine, the USS Nautilus, in 1954.
In 1972, the French physicist Francis Perrin discovered fifteen ancient and no longer active natural nuclear fission reactors in three separate ore deposits at the Oklo mine in Gabon, West Africa, collectively known as the Oklo Fossil Reactors. The ore deposit is 1.7 billion years old; then, uranium-235 constituted about 3% of the total uranium on Earth. This is high enough to permit a sustained nuclear fission chain reaction to occur, provided other supporting conditions exist. The capacity of the surrounding sediment to contain the nuclear waste products has been cited by the U.S. federal government as supporting evidence for the feasibility to store spent nuclear fuel at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
Above-ground nuclear tests by the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s and by France into the 1970s and 1980s spread a significant amount of fallout from uranium daughter isotopes around the world. Additional fallout and pollution occurred from several nuclear accidents.
Uranium miners have a higher incidence of cancer. An excess risk of lung cancer among Navajo uranium miners, for example, has been documented and linked to their occupation. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a 1990 law in the US, required $100,000 in "compassion payments" to uranium miners diagnosed with cancer or other respiratory ailments.
During the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, huge stockpiles of uranium were amassed and tens of thousands of nuclear weapons were created using enriched uranium and plutonium made from uranium. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, an estimated 600 short tons (540 metric tons) of highly enriched weapons grade uranium (enough to make 40,000 nuclear warheads) have been stored in often inadequately guarded facilities in the Russian Federation and several other former Soviet states. Police in Asia, Europe, and South America on at least 16 occasions from 1993 to 2005 have intercepted shipments of smuggled bomb-grade uranium or plutonium, most of which was from ex-Soviet sources. From 1993 to 2005 the Material Protection, Control, and Accounting Program, operated by the federal government of the United States, spent approximately US $550 million to help safeguard uranium and plutonium stockpiles in Russia. This money was used for improvements and security enhancements at research and storage facilities. Scientific American reported in February 2006 that in some of the facilities security consisted of chain link fences which were in severe states of disrepair. According to an interview from the article, one facility had been storing samples of enriched (weapons grade) uranium in a broom closet before the improvement project; another had been keeping track of its stock of nuclear warheads using index cards kept in a shoe box.
Along with all elements having atomic weights higher than that of iron, uranium is only naturally formed in supernovae. Primordial thorium and uranium are only produced in the r-process (rapid neutron capture), because the s-process (slow neutron capture) is too slow and cannot pass the gap of instability after bismuth. Besides the two extant primordial uranium isotopes, 235U and 238U, the r-process also produced significant quantities of 236U, which has a shorter half-life and has long since decayed completely to 232Th, which was itself enriched by the decay of 244Pu, accounting for the observed higher-than-expected abundance of thorium and lower-than-expected abundance of uranium. While the natural abundance of uranium has been supplemented by the decay of extinct 242Pu (half-life 0.375 million years) and 247Cm (half-life 16 million years), producing 238U and 235U respectively, this occurred to an almost negligible extent due to the shorter half-lives of these parents and their lower production than 236U and 244Pu, the parents of thorium: the 247Cm:235U ratio at the formation of the Solar System was (7.0±1.6)×10−5.
Uranium is a naturally occurring element that can be found in low levels within all rock, soil, and water. Uranium is the 51st element in order of abundance in the Earth's crust. Uranium is also the highest-numbered element to be found naturally in significant quantities on Earth and is almost always found combined with other elements. The decay of uranium, thorium, and potassium-40 in the Earth's mantle is thought to be the main source of heat that keeps the outer core liquid and drives mantle convection, which in turn drives plate tectonics.
Uranium's average concentration in the Earth's crust is (depending on the reference) 2 to 4 parts per million, or about 40 times as abundant as silver. The Earth's crust from the surface to 25 km (15 mi) down is calculated to contain 1017 kg (2×1017 lb) of uranium while the oceans may contain 1013 kg (2×1013 lb). The concentration of uranium in soil ranges from 0.7 to 11 parts per million (up to 15 parts per million in farmland soil due to use of phosphate fertilizers), and its concentration in sea water is 3 parts per billion.
Uranium is more plentiful than antimony, tin, cadmium, mercury, or silver, and it is about as abundant as arsenic or molybdenum. Uranium is found in hundreds of minerals, including uraninite (the most common uranium ore), carnotite, autunite, uranophane, torbernite, and coffinite. Significant concentrations of uranium occur in some substances such as phosphate rock deposits, and minerals such as lignite, and monazite sands in uranium-rich ores (it is recovered commercially from sources with as little as 0.1% uranium).
Other organisms, such as the lichen Trapelia involuta or microorganisms such as the bacterium Citrobacter, can absorb concentrations of uranium that are up to 300 times the level of their environment. Citrobacter species absorb uranyl ions when given glycerol phosphate (or other similar organic phosphates). After one day, one gram of bacteria can encrust themselves with nine grams of uranyl phosphate crystals; this creates the possibility that these organisms could be used in bioremediation to decontaminate uranium-polluted water. The proteobacterium Geobacter has also been shown to bioremediate uranium in ground water. The mycorrhizal fungus Glomus intraradices increases uranium content in the roots of its symbiotic plant.
In nature, uranium(VI) forms highly soluble carbonate complexes at alkaline pH. This leads to an increase in mobility and availability of uranium to groundwater and soil from nuclear wastes which leads to health hazards. However, it is difficult to precipitate uranium as phosphate in the presence of excess carbonate at alkaline pH. A Sphingomonas sp. strain BSAR-1 has been found to express a high activity alkaline phosphatase (PhoK) that has been applied for bioprecipitation of uranium as uranyl phosphate species from alkaline solutions. The precipitation ability was enhanced by overexpressing PhoK protein in E. coli.
Plants absorb some uranium from soil. Dry weight concentrations of uranium in plants range from 5 to 60 parts per billion, and ash from burnt wood can have concentrations up to 4 parts per million. Dry weight concentrations of uranium in food plants are typically lower with one to two micrograms per day ingested through the food people eat.
Worldwide production of U3O8 (yellowcake) in 2013 amounted to 70,015 tonnes, of which 22,451 t (32%) was mined in Kazakhstan. Other important uranium mining countries are Canada (9,331 t), Australia (6,350 t), Niger (4,518 t), Namibia (4,323 t) and Russia (3,135 t).
Uranium ore is mined in several ways: by open pit, underground, in-situ leaching, and borehole mining (see uranium mining). Low-grade uranium ore mined typically contains 0.01 to 0.25% uranium oxides. Extensive measures must be employed to extract the metal from its ore. High-grade ores found in Athabasca Basin deposits in Saskatchewan, Canada can contain up to 23% uranium oxides on average. Uranium ore is crushed and rendered into a fine powder and then leached with either an acid or alkali. The leachate is subjected to one of several sequences of precipitation, solvent extraction, and ion exchange. The resulting mixture, called yellowcake, contains at least 75% uranium oxides U3O8. Yellowcake is then calcined to remove impurities from the milling process before refining and conversion.
Commercial-grade uranium can be produced through the reduction of uranium halides with alkali or alkaline earth metals. Uranium metal can also be prepared through electrolysis of KUF
5 or UF
4, dissolved in molten calcium chloride (CaCl
2) and sodium chloride (NaCl) solution. Very pure uranium is produced through the thermal decomposition of uranium halides on a hot filament.
It is estimated that 5.5 million tonnes of uranium exists in ore reserves that are economically viable at US$59 per lb of uranium, while 35 million tonnes are classed as mineral resources (reasonable prospects for eventual economic extraction). Prices went from about $10/lb in May 2003 to $138/lb in July 2007. This has caused a big increase in spending on exploration, with US$200 million being spent worldwide in 2005, a 54% increase on the previous year. This trend continued through 2006, when expenditure on exploration rocketed to over $774 million, an increase of over 250% compared to 2004. The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency said exploration figures for 2007 would likely match those for 2006.
Australia has 31% of the world's known uranium ore reserves and the world's largest single uranium deposit, located at the Olympic Dam Mine in South Australia. There is a significant reserve of uranium in Bakouma a sub-prefecture in the prefecture of Mbomou in Central African Republic.
An additional 4.6 billion tonnes of uranium are estimated to be in sea water (Japanese scientists in the 1980s showed that extraction of uranium from sea water using ion exchangers was technically feasible). There have been experiments to extract uranium from sea water, but the yield has been low due to the carbonate present in the water. In 2012, ORNL researchers announced the successful development of a new absorbent material dubbed HiCap which performs surface retention of solid or gas molecules, atoms or ions and also effectively removes toxic metals from water, according to results verified by researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
In 2005, seventeen countries produced concentrated uranium oxides: Canada (27.9% of world production), Australia (22.8%), Kazakhstan (10.5%), Russia (8.0%), Namibia (7.5%), Niger (7.4%), Uzbekistan (5.5%), the United States (2.5%), Argentina (2.1%), Ukraine (1.9%) and China (1.7%). Kazakhstan continues to increase production and may have become the world's largest producer of uranium by 2009 with an expected production of 12,826 tonnes, compared to Canada with 11,100 t and Australia with 9,430 t. In the late 1960s, UN geologists also discovered major uranium deposits and other rare mineral reserves in Somalia. The find was the largest of its kind, with industry experts estimating the deposits at over 25% of the world's then known uranium reserves of 800,000 tons.
The ultimate available supply is believed to be sufficient for at least the next 85 years, although some studies indicate underinvestment in the late twentieth century may produce supply problems in the 21st century. Uranium deposits seem to be log-normal distributed. There is a 300-fold increase in the amount of uranium recoverable for each tenfold decrease in ore grade. In other words, there is little high grade ore and proportionately much more low grade ore available.
Calcined uranium yellowcake, as produced in many large mills, contains a distribution of uranium oxidation species in various forms ranging from most oxidized to least oxidized. Particles with short residence times in a calciner will generally be less oxidized than those with long retention times or particles recovered in the stack scrubber. Uranium content is usually referenced to U
8, which dates to the days of the Manhattan Project when U
8 was used as an analytical chemistry reporting standard.
Phase relationships in the uranium-oxygen system are complex. The most important oxidation states of uranium are uranium(IV) and uranium(VI), and their two corresponding oxides are, respectively, uranium dioxide (UO
2) and uranium trioxide (UO
3). Other uranium oxides such as uranium monoxide (UO), diuranium pentoxide (U
5), and uranium peroxide (UO
2O) also exist.
The most common forms of uranium oxide are triuranium octoxide (U
8) and UO
2. Both oxide forms are solids that have low solubility in water and are relatively stable over a wide range of environmental conditions. Triuranium octoxide is (depending on conditions) the most stable compound of uranium and is the form most commonly found in nature. Uranium dioxide is the form in which uranium is most commonly used as a nuclear reactor fuel. At ambient temperatures, UO
2 will gradually convert to U
8. Because of their stability, uranium oxides are generally considered the preferred chemical form for storage or disposal.
Salts of many oxidation states of uranium are water-soluble and may be studied in aqueous solutions. The most common ionic forms are U3+
2 (unstable), and UO2+
2 (yellow), for U(III), U(IV), U(V), and U(VI), respectively. A few solid and semi-metallic compounds such as UO and US exist for the formal oxidation state uranium(II), but no simple ions are known to exist in solution for that state. Ions of U3+
liberate hydrogen from water and are therefore considered to be highly unstable. The UO2+
2 ion represents the uranium(VI) state and is known to form compounds such as uranyl carbonate, uranyl chloride and uranyl sulfate. UO2+
2 also forms complexes with various organic chelating agents, the most commonly encountered of which is uranyl acetate.
The interactions of carbonate anions with uranium(VI) cause the Pourbaix diagram to change greatly when the medium is changed from water to a carbonate containing solution. While the vast majority of carbonates are insoluble in water (students are often taught that all carbonates other than those of alkali metals are insoluble in water), uranium carbonates are often soluble in water. This is because a U(VI) cation is able to bind two terminal oxides and three or more carbonates to form anionic complexes.
The uranium fraction diagrams in the presence of carbonate illustrate this further: when the pH of a uranium(VI) solution increases, the uranium is converted to a hydrated uranium oxide hydroxide and at high pHs it becomes an anionic hydroxide complex.
When carbonate is added, uranium is converted to a series of carbonate complexes if the pH is increased. One effect of these reactions is increased solubility of uranium in the pH range 6 to 8, a fact that has a direct bearing on the long term stability of spent uranium dioxide nuclear fuels.
Uranium metal heated to 250 to 300 °C (482 to 572 °F) reacts with hydrogen to form uranium hydride. Even higher temperatures will reversibly remove the hydrogen. This property makes uranium hydrides convenient starting materials to create reactive uranium powder along with various uranium carbide, nitride, and halide compounds. Two crystal modifications of uranium hydride exist: an α form that is obtained at low temperatures and a β form that is created when the formation temperature is above 250 °C.
Uranium carbides and uranium nitrides are both relatively inert semimetallic compounds that are minimally soluble in acids, react with water, and can ignite in air to form U
8. Carbides of uranium include uranium monocarbide (UC), uranium dicarbide (UC
2), and diuranium tricarbide (U
3). Both UC and UC
2 are formed by adding carbon to molten uranium or by exposing the metal to carbon monoxide at high temperatures. Stable below 1800 °C, U
3 is prepared by subjecting a heated mixture of UC and UC
2 to mechanical stress. Uranium nitrides obtained by direct exposure of the metal to nitrogen include uranium mononitride (UN), uranium dinitride (UN
2), and diuranium trinitride (U
All uranium fluorides are created using uranium tetrafluoride (UF
4 itself is prepared by hydrofluorination of uranium dioxide. Reduction of UF
4 with hydrogen at 1000 °C produces uranium trifluoride (UF
3). Under the right conditions of temperature and pressure, the reaction of solid UF
4 with gaseous uranium hexafluoride (UF
6) can form the intermediate fluorides of U
17, and UF
At room temperatures, UF
6 has a high vapor pressure, making it useful in the gaseous diffusion process to separate the rare uranium-235 from the common uranium-238 isotope. This compound can be prepared from uranium dioxide and uranium hydride by the following process:
The resulting UF
6, a white solid, is highly reactive (by fluorination), easily sublimes (emitting a vapor that behaves as a nearly ideal gas), and is the most volatile compound of uranium known to exist.
One method of preparing uranium tetrachloride (UCl
4) is to directly combine chlorine with either uranium metal or uranium hydride. The reduction of UCl
4 by hydrogen produces uranium trichloride (UCl
3) while the higher chlorides of uranium are prepared by reaction with additional chlorine. All uranium chlorides react with water and air.
Bromides and iodides of uranium are formed by direct reaction of, respectively, bromine and iodine with uranium or by adding UH
3 to those element's acids. Known examples include: UBr
3, and UI
4. Uranium oxyhalides are water-soluble and include UO
2, and UO
2. Stability of the oxyhalides decrease as the atomic weight of the component halide increases.
Natural uranium consists of three major isotopes: uranium-238 (99.28% natural abundance), uranium-235 (0.71%), and uranium-234 (0.0054%). All three are radioactive, emitting alpha particles, with the exception that all three of these isotopes have small probabilities of undergoing spontaneous fission, rather than alpha emission. There are also five other trace isotopes: uranium-239, which is formed when 238U undergoes spontaneous fission, releasing neutrons that are captured by another 238U atom; uranium-237, which is formed when 238U captures a neutron but emits two more, which then decays to neptunium-237; and finally, uranium-233, which is formed in the decay chain of that neptunium-237. It is also expected that thorium-232 should be able to undergo double beta decay, which would produce uranium-232, but this has not yet been observed experimentally.
Uranium-238 is the most stable isotope of uranium, with a half-life of about 4.468×109 years, roughly the age of the Earth. Uranium-235 has a half-life of about 7.13×108 years, and uranium-234 has a half-life of about 2.48×105 years. For natural uranium, about 49% of its alpha rays are emitted by each of 238U atom, and also 49% by 234U (since the latter is formed from the former) and about 2.0% of them by the 235U. When the Earth was young, probably about one-fifth of its uranium was uranium-235, but the percentage of 234U was probably much lower than this.
Uranium-238 is usually an α emitter (occasionally, it undergoes spontaneous fission), decaying through the uranium series, which has 18 members, into lead-206, by a variety of different decay paths.
The decay chain of 235U, which is called the actinium series, has 15 members and eventually decays into lead-207. The constant rates of decay in these decay series makes the comparison of the ratios of parent to daughter elements useful in radiometric dating.
Uranium-234, which is a member of the uranium series (the decay chain of uranium-238), decays to lead-206 through a series of relatively short-lived isotopes.
Uranium-233 is made from thorium-232 by neutron bombardment, usually in a nuclear reactor, and 233U is also fissile. Its decay chain forms part of the neptunium series and ends at bismuth-209 and thallium-205.
Uranium-235 is important for both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons, because it is the only uranium isotope existing in nature on Earth in any significant amount that is fissile. This means that it can be split into two or three fragments (fission products) by thermal neutrons.
Uranium-238 is not fissile, but is a fertile isotope, because after neutron activation it can produce plutonium-239, another fissile isotope. Indeed, the 238U nucleus can absorb one neutron to produce the radioactive isotope uranium-239. 239U decays by beta emission to neptunium-239, also a beta-emitter, that decays in its turn, within a few days into plutonium-239. 239Pu was used as fissile material in the first atomic bomb detonated in the "Trinity test" on 15 July 1945 in New Mexico.
In nature, uranium is found as uranium-238 (99.2742%) and uranium-235 (0.7204%). Isotope separation concentrates (enriches) the fissionable uranium-235 for nuclear weapons and most nuclear power plants, except for gas cooled reactors and pressurised heavy water reactors. Most neutrons released by a fissioning atom of uranium-235 must impact other uranium-235 atoms to sustain the nuclear chain reaction. The concentration and amount of uranium-235 needed to achieve this is called a 'critical mass'.
To be considered 'enriched', the uranium-235 fraction should be between 3% and 5%. This process produces huge quantities of uranium that is depleted of uranium-235 and with a correspondingly increased fraction of uranium-238, called depleted uranium or 'DU'. To be considered 'depleted', the uranium-235 isotope concentration should be no more than 0.3%. The price of uranium has risen since 2001, so enrichment tailings containing more than 0.35% uranium-235 are being considered for re-enrichment, driving the price of depleted uranium hexafluoride above $130 per kilogram in July 2007 from $5 in 2001.
The gas centrifuge process, where gaseous uranium hexafluoride (UF
6) is separated by the difference in molecular weight between 235UF6 and 238UF6 using high-speed centrifuges, is the cheapest and leading enrichment process. The gaseous diffusion process had been the leading method for enrichment and was used in the Manhattan Project. In this process, uranium hexafluoride is repeatedly diffused through a silver-zinc membrane, and the different isotopes of uranium are separated by diffusion rate (since uranium 238 is heavier it diffuses slightly slower than uranium-235). The molecular laser isotope separation method employs a laser beam of precise energy to sever the bond between uranium-235 and fluorine. This leaves uranium-238 bonded to fluorine and allows uranium-235 metal to precipitate from the solution. An alternative laser method of enrichment is known as atomic vapor laser isotope separation (AVLIS) and employs visible tunable lasers such as dye lasers. Another method used is liquid thermal diffusion.
A person can be exposed to uranium (or its radioactive daughters, such as radon) by inhaling dust in air or by ingesting contaminated water and food. The amount of uranium in air is usually very small; however, people who work in factories that process phosphate fertilizers, live near government facilities that made or tested nuclear weapons, live or work near a modern battlefield where depleted uranium weapons have been used, or live or work near a coal-fired power plant, facilities that mine or process uranium ore, or enrich uranium for reactor fuel, may have increased exposure to uranium. Houses or structures that are over uranium deposits (either natural or man-made slag deposits) may have an increased incidence of exposure to radon gas. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set the permissible exposure limit for uranium exposure in the workplace as 0.25 mg/m3 over an 8-hour workday. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set a recommended exposure limit (REL) of 0.2 mg/m3 over an 8-hour workday and a short-term limit of 0.6 mg/m3. At levels of 10 mg/m3, uranium is immediately dangerous to life and health.
Most ingested uranium is excreted during digestion. Only 0.5% is absorbed when insoluble forms of uranium, such as its oxide, are ingested, whereas absorption of the more soluble uranyl ion can be up to 5%. However, soluble uranium compounds tend to quickly pass through the body, whereas insoluble uranium compounds, especially when inhaled by way of dust into the lungs, pose a more serious exposure hazard. After entering the bloodstream, the absorbed uranium tends to bioaccumulate and stay for many years in bone tissue because of uranium's affinity for phosphates. Uranium is not absorbed through the skin, and alpha particles released by uranium cannot penetrate the skin.
Normal functioning of the kidney, brain, liver, heart, and other systems can be affected by uranium exposure, because, besides being weakly radioactive, uranium is a toxic metal. Uranium is also a reproductive toxicant. Radiological effects are generally local because alpha radiation, the primary form of 238U decay, has a very short range, and will not penetrate skin. Alpha radiation from inhaled uranium has been demonstrated to cause lung cancer in exposed nuclear workers. Uranyl (UO2+
2) ions, such as from uranium trioxide or uranyl nitrate and other hexavalent uranium compounds, have been shown to cause birth defects and immune system damage in laboratory animals. While the CDC has published one study that no human cancer has been seen as a result of exposure to natural or depleted uranium, exposure to uranium and its decay products, especially radon, are widely known and significant health threats. Exposure to strontium-90, iodine-131, and other fission products is unrelated to uranium exposure, but may result from medical procedures or exposure to spent reactor fuel or fallout from nuclear weapons. Although accidental inhalation exposure to a high concentration of uranium hexafluoride has resulted in human fatalities, those deaths were associated with the generation of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid and uranyl fluoride rather than with uranium itself. Finely divided uranium metal presents a fire hazard because uranium is pyrophoric; small grains will ignite spontaneously in air at room temperature.
|Body system||Human studies||Animal studies||In vitro|
|Renal||Elevated levels of protein excretion, urinary catalase and diuresis||Damage to proximal convoluted tubules, necrotic cells cast from tubular epithelium, glomerular changes (renal failure)||No studies|
|Brain/CNS||Decreased performance on neurocognitive tests||Acute cholinergic toxicity; Dose-dependent accumulation in cortex, midbrain, and vermis; Electrophysiological changes in hippocampus||No studies|
|DNA||Increased reports of cancers||Increased mutagenicity (in mice) and induction of tumors||Binucleated cells with micronuclei, Inhibition of cell cycle kinetics and proliferation; Sister chromatid induction, tumorigenic phenotype|
|Bone/muscle||No studies||Inhibition of periodontal bone formation; and alveolar wound healing||No studies|
|Reproductive||Uranium miners have more first-born female children||Moderate to severe focal tubular atrophy; vacuolization of Leydig cells||No studies|
|Lungs/respiratory||No adverse health effects reported||Severe nasal congestion and hemorrhage, lung lesions and fibrosis, edema and swelling, lung cancer||No studies|
|Gastrointestinal||Vomiting, diarrhea, albuminuria||No studies||No studies|
|Liver||No effects seen at exposure dose||Fatty livers, focal necrosis||No studies|
|Skin||No exposure assessment data available||Swollen vacuolated epidermal cells, damage to hair follicles and sebaceous glands||No studies|
|Tissues surrounding embedded DU fragments||Elevated uranium urine concentrations||Elevated uranium urine concentrations, perturbations in biochemical and neuropsychological testing||No studies|
|Immune system||Chronic fatigue, rash, ear and eye infections, hair and weight loss, cough. May be due to combined chemical exposure rather than DU alone||No studies||No studies|
|Eyes||No studies||Conjunctivitis, irritation inflammation, edema, ulceration of conjunctival sacs||No studies|
|Blood||No studies||Decrease in RBC count and hemoglobin concentration||No studies|
|Cardiovascular||Myocarditis resulting from the uranium ingestion, which ended six months after ingestion||No effects||No studies|
The actinide or actinoid (IUPAC nomenclature) series encompasses the 15 metallic chemical elements with atomic numbers from 89 to 103, actinium through lawrencium.Strictly speaking, both actinium and lawrencium have been labeled as group 3 elements, but both elements are often included in any general discussion of the chemistry of the actinide elements. Actinium is the more often omitted of the two, because its placement as a group 3 element is somewhat more common in texts and for semantic reasons: since "actinide" means "like actinium", it has been argued that actinium cannot logically be an actinide, even though IUPAC acknowledges its inclusion based on common usage.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, with the exception being either actinium or lawrencium. The series mostly corresponds to the filling of the 5f electron shell, although actinium and thorium lack any f-electrons, and curium and lawrencium have the same number as the preceding element. 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 radii 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, protactinium, and uranium are much more similar to transition metals in their chemistry, with neptunium and plutonium occupying an intermediate position.
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.
Of the actinides, primordial thorium and uranium occur naturally in substantial quantities. The radioactive decay of uranium produces transient amounts of actinium and protactinium, and atoms of neptunium and plutonium 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.In presentations of the periodic table, the lanthanides and the actinides are customarily shown as two additional rows below the main body of the table, with placeholders or else a selected single element of each series (either lanthanum or lutetium, and either actinium or lawrencium, respectively) shown in a single cell of the main table, between barium and hafnium, and radium and rutherfordium, respectively. This convention is entirely a matter of aesthetics and formatting practicality; a rarely used wide-formatted periodic table inserts the lanthanide and actinide series in their proper places, as parts of the table's sixth and seventh rows (periods).Decay chain
In nuclear science, the decay chain refers to a series of radioactive decays of different radioactive decay products as a sequential series of transformations. It is also known as a "radioactive cascade". Most radioisotopes do not decay directly to a stable state, but rather undergo a series of decays until eventually a stable isotope is reached.
Decay stages are referred to by their relationship to previous or subsequent stages. A parent isotope is one that undergoes decay to form a daughter isotope. One example of this is uranium (atomic number 92) decaying into thorium (atomic number 90). The daughter isotope may be stable or it may decay to form a daughter isotope of its own. The daughter of a daughter isotope is sometimes called a granddaughter isotope.
The time it takes for a single parent atom to decay to an atom of its daughter isotope can vary widely, not only between different parent-daughter pairs, but also randomly between identical pairings of parent and daughter isotopes. The decay of each single atom occurs spontaneously, and the decay of an initial population of identical atoms over time t, follows a decaying exponential distribution, e−λt, where λ is called a decay constant. One of the properties of an isotope is its half-life, the time by which half of an initial number of identical parent radioisotopes have decayed to their daughters, which is inversely related to λ. Half-lives have been determined in laboratories for many radioisotopes (or radionuclides). These can range from nearly instantaneous to as much as 1019 years or more.
The intermediate stages each emit the same amount of radioactivity as the original radioisotope (i.e. there is a one-to-one relationship between the numbers of decays in successive stages) but each stage releases a different quantity of energy. If and when equilibrium is achieved, each successive daughter isotope is present in direct proportion to its half-life; but since its activity is inversely proportional to its half-life, each nuclide in the decay chain finally contributes as many individual transformations as the head of the chain, though not the same energy. For example, uranium-238 is weakly radioactive, but pitchblende, a uranium ore, is 13 times more radioactive than the pure uranium metal because of the radium and other daughter isotopes it contains. Not only are unstable radium isotopes significant radioactivity emitters, but as the next stage in the decay chain they also generate radon, a heavy, inert, naturally occurring radioactive gas. Rock containing thorium and/or uranium (such as some granites) emits radon gas that can accumulate in enclosed places such as basements or underground mines.Depleted uranium
Depleted uranium (DU; also referred to in the past as Q-metal, depletalloy or D-38) is uranium with a lower content of the fissile isotope U-235 than natural uranium. Natural uranium contains about 0.72% U-235, while the DU used by the U.S. Department of Defense contains 0.3% U-235 or less. Uses of DU take advantage of its very high density of 19.1 g/cm3 (68.4% denser than lead). The less radioactive and non-fissile uranium-238 constitutes the main component of depleted uranium.
Civilian uses include counterweights in aircraft, radiation shielding in medical radiation therapy and industrial radiography equipment, and containers for transporting radioactive materials. Military uses include armor plating and armor-piercing projectiles.
Most depleted uranium arises as a by-product of the production of enriched uranium for use as fuel in nuclear reactors and in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Enrichment processes generate uranium with a higher-than-natural concentration of lower-mass-number uranium isotopes (in particular U-235, which is the uranium isotope supporting the fission chain reaction) with the bulk of the feed ending up as depleted uranium, in some cases with mass fractions of U-235 and U-234 less than a third of those in natural uranium. Since U-238 has a much longer half-life than the lighter isotopes, DU emits less alpha radiation than natural uranium. DU from nuclear reprocessing has different isotopic ratios from enrichment–by-product DU, from which it can be distinguished by the presence of U-236. As per articles in The Lancet and Al Jazeera, DU due to American artillery is suspected to be one of the major causes of an increase in the general mortality rate in Iraq since 1991.DU used in US munitions has 60% of the radioactivity of natural uranium. Trace transuranics (another indicator of the use of reprocessed material) have been reported to be present in some US tank armor.The use of DU in munitions is controversial because of concerns about potential long-term health effects. Normal functioning of the kidney, brain, liver, heart, and numerous other systems can be affected by exposure to uranium, a toxic metal. It is only weakly radioactive because of its long radioactive half-life (4.468 billion years for uranium-238, 700 million years for uranium-235; or 1 part per million every 6446 and 1010 years, respectively). The biological half-life (the average time it takes for the human body to eliminate half the amount in the body) for uranium is about 15 days. The aerosol or spallation frangible powder produced by impact and combustion of depleted uranium munitions can potentially contaminate wide areas around the impact sites, leading to possible inhalation by human beings.The actual level of acute and chronic toxicity of DU is also controversial. Several studies using cultured cells and laboratory rodents suggest the possibility of leukemogenic, genetic, reproductive, and neurological effects from chronic exposure. A 2005 epidemiology review concluded: "In aggregate the human epidemiological evidence is consistent with increased risk of birth defects in offspring of persons exposed to DU."Enriched uranium
Enriched uranium is a type of uranium in which the percent composition of uranium-235 has been increased through the process of isotope separation. Natural uranium is 99.284% 238U isotope, with 235U only constituting about 0.711% of its mass. 235U is the only nuclide existing in nature (in any appreciable amount) that is fissile with thermal neutrons.Enriched uranium is a critical component for both civil nuclear power generation and military nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency attempts to monitor and control enriched uranium supplies and processes in its efforts to ensure nuclear power generation safety and curb nuclear weapons proliferation.
During the Manhattan Project enriched uranium was given the codename oralloy, a shortened version of Oak Ridge alloy, after the location of the plants where the uranium was enriched. The term oralloy is still occasionally used to refer to enriched uranium. There are about 2,000 tonnes (t, Mg) of highly enriched uranium in the world, produced mostly for nuclear power, nuclear weapons, naval propulsion, and smaller quantities for research reactors.
The 238U remaining after enrichment is known as depleted uranium (DU), and is considerably less radioactive than even natural uranium, though still very dense and extremely hazardous in granulated form – such granules are a natural by-product of the shearing action that makes it useful for armor-penetrating weapons and radiation shielding. At present, 95 percent of the world's stocks of depleted uranium remain in secure storage.Isotopes of uranium
Uranium (92U) is a naturally occurring radioactive element that has no stable isotopes but two primordial isotopes (uranium-238 and uranium-235) that have long half-lives and are found in appreciable quantity in the Earth's crust, along with the decay product uranium-234. The standard atomic weight of natural uranium is 238.02891(3). Other isotopes such as uranium-232 have been produced in breeder reactors.
Naturally occurring uranium is composed of three major isotopes, uranium-238 (99.2739–99.2752% natural abundance), uranium-235 (0.7198–0.7202%), and uranium-234 (0.0050–0.0059%). All three isotopes are radioactive, creating radioisotopes, with the most abundant and stable being uranium-238 with a half-life of 4.4683×109 years (close to the age of the Earth).
Uranium-238 is an α emitter, decaying through the 18-member uranium series into lead-206. The decay series of uranium-235 (historically called actino-uranium) has 15 members that ends in lead-207. The constant rates of decay in these series makes comparison of the ratios of parent to daughter elements useful in radiometric dating. Uranium-233 is made from thorium-232 by neutron bombardment.
The isotope uranium-235 is important for both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons because it is the only isotope existing in nature to any appreciable extent that is fissile, that is, can be broken apart by thermal neutrons. The isotope uranium-238 is also important because it absorbs neutrons to produce a radioactive isotope that subsequently decays to the isotope plutonium-239, which also is fissile.Little Boy
"Little Boy" was the code name for the type of atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 during World War II. It was the first nuclear weapon used in warfare. The bomb was dropped by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay piloted by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., commander of the 509th Composite Group of the United States Army Air Forces. It exploded with an energy of approximately 15 kilotons of TNT (63 TJ) and caused widespread death and destruction throughout the city. The Hiroshima bombing was the second nuclear explosion in history, after the Trinity test, and the first uranium-based detonation.
Little Boy was developed by Lieutenant Commander Francis Birch's group at the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II, a development of the unsuccessful Thin Man nuclear bomb. Like Thin Man, it was a gun-type fission weapon, but it derived its explosive power from the nuclear fission of uranium-235, whereas Thin Man was based on fission of plutonium-239. Fission was accomplished by shooting a hollow cylinder of enriched uranium (the "bullet") onto a solid cylinder of the same material (the "target") by means of a charge of nitrocellulose propellant powder. It contained 64 kg (141 lb) of enriched uranium, although less than a kilogram underwent nuclear fission. Its components were fabricated at three different plants so that no one would have a copy of the complete design.
After the war ended, it was not expected that the inefficient Little Boy design would ever again be required, and many plans and diagrams were destroyed. However, by mid-1946, the Hanford Site reactors began suffering badly from the Wigner effect, the dislocation of atoms in a solid caused by neutron radiation, and plutonium became scarce, so six Little Boy assemblies were produced at Sandia Base. The Navy Bureau of Ordnance built another 25 Little Boy assemblies in 1947 for use by the Lockheed P2V Neptune nuclear strike aircraft which could be launched from the Midway-class aircraft carriers. All the Little Boy units were withdrawn from service by the end of January 1951.Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was a research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. It was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory that designed the actual bombs. The Army component of the project was designated the Manhattan District; Manhattan gradually superseded the official codename, Development of Substitute Materials, for the entire project. Along the way, the project absorbed its earlier British counterpart, Tube Alloys. The Manhattan Project began modestly in 1939, but grew to employ more than 130,000 people and cost nearly US$2 billion (about $22 billion in 2016 dollars). Over 90% of the cost was for building factories and to produce fissile material, with less than 10% for development and production of the weapons. Research and production took place at more than 30 sites across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
Two types of atomic bombs were developed concurrently during the war: a relatively simple gun-type fission weapon and a more complex implosion-type nuclear weapon. The Thin Man gun-type design proved impractical to use with plutonium, and therefore a simpler gun-type called Little Boy was developed that used uranium-235, an isotope that makes up only 0.7 percent of natural uranium. Chemically identical to the most common isotope, uranium-238, and with almost the same mass, it proved difficult to separate the two. Three methods were employed for uranium enrichment: electromagnetic, gaseous and thermal. Most of this work was performed at the Clinton Engineer Works at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
In parallel with the work on uranium was an effort to produce plutonium. After the feasibility of the world's first artificial nuclear reactor was demonstrated in Chicago at the Metallurgical Laboratory, it designed the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge and the production reactors in Hanford, Washington, in which uranium was irradiated and transmuted into plutonium. The plutonium was then chemically separated from the uranium, using the bismuth phosphate process. The Fat Man plutonium implosion-type weapon was developed in a concerted design and development effort by the Los Alamos Laboratory.
The project was also charged with gathering intelligence on the German nuclear weapon project. Through Operation Alsos, Manhattan Project personnel served in Europe, sometimes behind enemy lines, where they gathered nuclear materials and documents, and rounded up German scientists. Despite the Manhattan Project's tight security, Soviet atomic spies successfully penetrated the program.
The first nuclear device ever detonated was an implosion-type bomb at the Trinity test, conducted at New Mexico's Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range on 16 July 1945. Little Boy and Fat Man bombs were used a month later in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. In the immediate postwar years, the Manhattan Project conducted weapons testing at Bikini Atoll as part of Operation Crossroads, developed new weapons, promoted the development of the network of national laboratories, supported medical research into radiology and laid the foundations for the nuclear navy. It maintained control over American atomic weapons research and production until the formation of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in January 1947.Non-renewable resource
A non-renewable resource (also called a finite resource) is a resource of economic value that cannot be readily replaced by natural means at a quick enough pace to keep up with consumption. An example is carbon-based fossil fuel. The original organic material, with the aid of heat and pressure, becomes a fuel such as oil or gas. Earth minerals and metal ores, fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, natural gas) and groundwater in certain aquifers are all considered non-renewable resources, though individual elements are always conserved (except in nuclear reactions).
On the other hand, resources such as timber (when harvested sustainably) and wind (used to power energy conversion systems) are considered renewable resources, largely because their localized replenishment can occur within time frames meaningful to humans too.Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction or a radioactive decay process in which the [[atomic nucleus|nucleus] of an atom splits into smaller, lighter nuclei. The fission process often produces free neutrons and gamma photons, and releases a very large amount of energy even by the energetic standards of radioactive decay.
Nuclear fission of heavy elements was discovered on December 17, 1938 by German Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann, and explained theoretically in January 1939 by Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch. Frisch named the process by analogy with biological fission of living cells. For heavy nuclides, it is an exothermic reaction which can release large amounts of energy both as electromagnetic radiation and as kinetic energy of the fragments (heating the bulk material where fission takes place). In order for fission to produce energy, the total binding energy of the resulting elements must be more negative (greater binding energy) than that of the starting element.
Fission is a form of [nuclear transmutation]] because the resulting fragments are not the same element as the original atom. The two nuclei produced are most often of comparable but slightly different sizes, typically with a mass ratio of products of about 3 to 2, for common fissil isotopes. Most fissions are binary fissions (producing two charged fragments), but occasionally (2 to 4 times per 1000 events), three positively charged fragments are produced, in a ternary fission. The smallest of these fragments in ternary processes ranges in size from a proton to an argon nucleus.
Apart from fission induced by a neutron, harnessed and exploited by humans, a natural form of spontaneous radioactive decay (not requiring a neutron) is also referred to as fission, and occurs especially in very high-mass-number isotopes. Spontaneous fission was discovered in 1940 by Flyorov, Petrzhak and Kurchatov in Moscow, when they decided to confirm that, without bombardment by neutrons, the fission rate of uranium was indeed negligible, as predicted by Niels Bohr; it was not.The unpredictable composition of the products (which vary in a broad probabilistic and somewhat chaotic manner) distinguishes fission from purely quantum-tunneling processes such as proton emission, alpha decay, and cluster decay, which give the same products each time. Nuclear fission produces energy for nuclear power and drives the explosion of nuclear weapons. Both uses are possible because certain substances called nuclear fuels undergo fission when struck by fission neutrons, and in turn emit neutrons when they break apart. This makes a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction possible, releasing energy at a controlled rate in a nuclear reactor or at a very rapid, uncontrolled rate in a nuclear weapon.
The amount of free energy contained in nuclear fuel is millions of times the amount of free energy contained in a similar mass of chemical fuel such as gasoline, making nuclear fission a very dense source of energy. The products of nuclear fission, however, are on average far more radioactive than the heavy elements which are normally fissioned as fuel, and remain so for significant amounts of time, giving rise to a nuclear waste problem. Concerns over nuclear waste accumulation and over the destructive potential of nuclear weapons are a counterbalance to the peaceful desire to use fission as an energy source.Nuclear fuel
Nuclear fuel is material used in nuclear power stations to produce heat to power turbines. Heat is created when nuclear fuel undergoes nuclear fission.
Most nuclear fuels contain heavy fissile actinide elements that are capable of undergoing and sustaining nuclear fission. The three most relevant fissile isotopes are Uranium-233, Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239. When the unstable nuclei of these atoms are hit by a slow-moving neutron, they split, creating two daughter nuclei and two or three more neutrons. These neutrons then go on to split more nuclei. This creates a self-sustaining chain reaction that is controlled in a nuclear reactor, or uncontrolled in a nuclear weapon.
The processes involved in mining, refining, purifying, using, and disposing of nuclear fuel are collectively known as the nuclear fuel cycle.
Not all types of nuclear fuels create power from nuclear fission; plutonium-238 and some other elements are used to produce small amounts of nuclear power by radioactive decay in radioisotope thermoelectric generators and other types of atomic batteries.
Nuclear fuel has the highest energy density of all practical fuel sources.Nuclear power
Nuclear power is the use of nuclear reactions that release nuclear energy to generate heat, which most frequently is then used in steam turbines to produce electricity in a nuclear power plant. As a nuclear technology, nuclear power can be obtained from nuclear fission, nuclear decay and nuclear fusion reactions.
Presently, the vast majority of electricity from nuclear power is produced by nuclear fission of uranium and plutonium.
Nuclear decay processes are used in niche applications such as radioisotope thermoelectric generators.
Generating electricity from fusion power remains at the focus of international research.
This article mostly deals with nuclear fission power for electricity generation.
Civilian nuclear power supplied 2,488 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in 2017, equivalent to about 10% of global electricity generation.
As of April 2018, there are 449 civilian fission reactors in the world, with a combined electrical capacity of 394 gigawatt (GW).
As of 2018, there are 58 power reactors under construction and 154 reactors planned, with a combined capacity of 63 GW and 157 GW, respectively. As of January 2019, 337 more reactors were proposed.
Most reactors under construction are generation III reactors in Asia.Nuclear power is classified as a low greenhouse gas energy supply technology, along with renewable energy, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Since its commercialization in the 1970s, nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and the emission of about 64 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent that would have otherwise resulted from the burning of fossil fuels.There is a debate about nuclear power.
Proponents, such as the World Nuclear Association and Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, contend that nuclear power is a safe, sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions.
Opponents, such as Greenpeace and NIRS, contend that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment.
Accidents in nuclear power plants include the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, and the more contained Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979.
There have also been some nuclear submarine accidents.
Nuclear reactors have caused the lowest number of fatalities per unit of energy generated when compared to fossil fuels and hydropower.
Coal, petroleum, natural gas and hydroelectricity each have caused a greater number of fatalities per unit of energy, due to air pollution and accidents.Collaboration on research and development towards greater efficiency, safety and recycling of spent fuel in future generation IV reactors presently includes Euratom and the co-operation of more than 10 permanent member countries globally.Nuclear power in India
Nuclear power is the fifth-largest source of electricity in India after coal, gas, hydroelectricity and wind power. As of March 2018, India has 22 nuclear reactors in operation in 7 nuclear power plants, having a total installed capacity of 6,780 MW. Nuclear power produced a total of 35 TWh and supplied 3.22% of Indian electricity in 2017. 7 more reactors are under construction with a combined generation capacity of 4,300 MW.
In October 2010, India drew up a plan to reach a nuclear power capacity of 63 GW in 2032, but after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan people around proposed Indian nuclear power plant sites have launched protests, raising questions about atomic energy as a clean and safe alternative to fossil fuels.
There have been mass protests against the French-backed 9,900 MW Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project in Maharashtra and the Russian-backed 2,000 MW Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu.
The state government of West Bengal, has also refused permission to a proposed 6,000 MW facility near the town of Haripur that intended to host six Russian reactors.
A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has also been filed against the government’s civil nuclear programme at the Supreme Court.Nuclear power in India has suffered from generally low capacity factors.
As of 2017, the lifetime weighted energy availability factor of the Indian fleet is 63.5%.
However, capacity factors have been improving in recent years. The availability factor of Indian reactors was 69.4% in the years 2015-2017.
One of the main reasons for the low capacity factors is lack of nuclear fuel.
India has been making advances in the field of thorium-based fuels, working to design and develop a prototype for an atomic reactor using thorium and low-enriched uranium, a key part of India's three stage nuclear power programme. The country has also recently re-initiated its involvement in the LENR research activities, in addition to supporting work done in the fusion power area through the ITER initiative.Protactinium
Protactinium (formerly protoactinium) is a chemical element with symbol Pa and atomic number 91. It is a dense, silvery-gray actinide metal which readily reacts with oxygen, water vapor and inorganic acids. It forms various chemical compounds in which protactinium is usually present in the oxidation state +5, but it can also assume +4 and even +3 or +2 states. Concentrations of protactinium in the Earth's crust are typically a few parts per trillion, but may reach up to a few parts per million in some uraninite ore deposits. Because of its scarcity, high radioactivity and high toxicity, there are currently no uses for protactinium outside scientific research, and for this purpose, protactinium is mostly extracted from spent nuclear fuel.
Protactinium was first identified in 1913 by Kasimir Fajans and Oswald Helmuth Göhring and named brevium because of the short half-life of the specific isotope studied, i.e. protactinium-234. A more stable isotope of protactinium, 231Pa, was discovered in 1917/18 by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner, and they chose the name proto-actinium, but the IUPAC finally named it "protactinium" in 1949 and confirmed Hahn and Meitner as discoverers. The new name meant "(nuclear) precursor of actinium" and reflected that actinium is a product of radioactive decay of protactinium. John Arnold Cranston (working with Frederick Soddy and Ada Hitchins) is also credited with discovering the most stable isotope in 1915, but delayed his announcement due to being called up for service in the First World War.The longest-lived and most abundant (nearly 100%) naturally occurring isotope of protactinium, protactinium-231, has a half-life of 32,760 years and is a decay product of uranium-235. Much smaller trace amounts of the short-lived protactinium-234 and its nuclear isomer protactinium-234m occur in the decay chain of uranium-238. Protactinium-233 results from the decay of thorium-233 as part of the chain of events used to produce uranium-233 by neutron irradiation of thorium-232. It is an undesired intermediate product in thorium-based nuclear reactors and is therefore removed from the active zone of the reactor during the breeding process. Analysis of the relative concentrations of various uranium, thorium and protactinium isotopes in water and minerals is used in radiometric dating of sediments which are up to 175,000 years old and in modeling of various geological processes.Radiometric dating
Radiometric dating, radioactive dating or radioisotope dating is a technique used to date materials such as rocks or carbon, in which trace radioactive impurities were selectively incorporated when they were formed. The method compares the abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope within the material to the abundance of its decay products, which form at a known constant rate of decay. The use of radiometric dating was first published in 1907 by Bertram Boltwood and is now the principal source of information about the absolute age of rocks and other geological features, including the age of fossilized life forms or the age of the Earth itself, and can also be used to date a wide range of natural and man-made materials.
Together with stratigraphic principles, radiometric dating methods are used in geochronology to establish the geologic time scale. Among the best-known techniques are radiocarbon dating, potassium–argon dating and uranium–lead dating. By allowing the establishment of geological timescales, it provides a significant source of information about the ages of fossils and the deduced rates of evolutionary change. Radiometric dating is also used to date archaeological materials, including ancient artifacts.
Different methods of radiometric dating vary in the timescale over which they are accurate and the materials to which they can be applied.Thorium
Thorium is a weakly radioactive metallic chemical element with symbol Th and atomic number 90. Thorium is silvery and tarnishes black when it is exposed to air, forming thorium dioxide; it is moderately hard, malleable, and has a high melting point. Thorium is an electropositive actinide whose chemistry is dominated by the +4 oxidation state; it is quite reactive and can ignite in air when finely divided.
All known thorium isotopes are unstable. The most stable isotope, 232Th, has a half-life of 14.05 billion years, or about the age of the universe; it decays very slowly via alpha decay, starting a decay chain named the thorium series that ends at stable 208Pb. In the universe, thorium and uranium are the only two radioactive elements that still occur naturally in large quantities as primordial elements. It is estimated to be over three times as abundant as uranium in the Earth's crust, and is chiefly refined from monazite sands as a by-product of extracting rare-earth metals.
Thorium was discovered in 1829 by the Norwegian amateur mineralogist Morten Thrane Esmark and identified by the Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Its first applications were developed in the late 19th century. Thorium's radioactivity was widely acknowledged during the first decades of the 20th century. In the second half of the century, thorium was replaced in many uses due to concerns about its radioactivity.
Thorium is still being used as an alloying element in TIG welding electrodes but is slowly being replaced in the field with different compositions. It was also a material in high-end optics and scientific instrumentation, and as the light source in gas mantles, but these uses have become marginal. It has been suggested as a replacement for uranium as nuclear fuel in nuclear reactors, and several thorium reactors have been built.Uranium-235
Uranium-235 (235U) is an isotope of uranium making up about 0.72% of natural uranium. Unlike the predominant isotope uranium-238, it is fissile, i.e., it can sustain a fission chain reaction. It is the only fissile isotope with a primordial nuclide found in significant quantity in nature.
Uranium-235 has a half-life of 703.8 million years. It was discovered in 1935 by Arthur Jeffrey Dempster. Its fission cross section for slow thermal neutrons is about 584.994 barns. For fast neutrons it is on the order of 1 barn.
Most but not all neutron absorptions result in fission; a minority result in neutron capture forming uranium-236.Uranium-238
Uranium-238 (238U or U-238) is the most common isotope of uranium found in nature, with a relative abundance of 99%. Unlike uranium-235, it is non-fissile, which means it cannot sustain a chain reaction in a thermal-neutron reactor. However, it is fissionable by fast neutrons, and is fertile, meaning it can be transmuted to fissile plutonium-239. 238U cannot support a chain reaction because inelastic scattering reduces neutron energy below the range where fast fission of one or more next-generation nuclei is probable. Doppler broadening of U-238's neutron absorption resonances, increasing absorption as fuel temperature increases, is also an essential negative feedback mechanism for reactor control.
Around 99.284% of natural uranium's mass is uranium-238, which has a half-life of 1.41×1017 seconds (4.468×109 years, or 4.468 billion years).
Due to its natural abundance and half-life relative to other radioactive elements, 238U produces ~40% of the radioactive heat produced within the Earth. 238U decay contributes 6 electron anti-neutrinos per decay (1 per beta decay), resulting in a large detectable geoneutrino signal when decays occur within the Earth. The decay of 238U to daughter isotopes is extensively used in radiometric dating, particularly for material older than ~ 1 million years.
Depleted uranium has an even higher concentration of the 238U isotope, and even low-enriched uranium (LEU), while having a higher proportion of the uranium-235 isotope (in comparison to depleted uranium), is still mostly 238U. Reprocessed uranium is also mainly 238U, with about as much uranium-235 as natural uranium, a comparable proportion of uranium-236, and much smaller amounts of other isotopes of uranium such as uranium-234, uranium-233, and uranium-232.Uranium hexafluoride
Uranium hexafluoride (UF6), colloquially known as "hex" in the nuclear industry, is a compound used in the process of enriching uranium, which produces fuel for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. Hex forms solid grey crystals at standard temperature and pressure, is highly toxic, reacts with water, and is corrosive to most metals. The compound reacts mildly with aluminium, forming a thin surface layer of AlF3 that resists any further reaction from the compound.Uranium mining
Uranium mining is the process of extraction of uranium ore from the ground. The worldwide production of uranium in 2015 amounted to 60,496 tonnes. Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia are the top three producers and together account for 70% of world uranium production. Other important uranium producing countries in excess of 1,000 tons per year are Niger, Russia, Namibia, Uzbekistan, China, the United States and Ukraine. Uranium from mining is used almost entirely as fuel for nuclear power plants.
Uranium ores are normally processed by grinding the ore materials to a uniform particle size and then treating the ore to extract the uranium by chemical leaching. The milling process commonly yields dry powder-form material consisting of natural uranium, "yellowcake," which is sold on the uranium market as U3O8.
Main isotopes of uranium