Uranium is an element found everywhere on Earth and was first discovered in the 18th century. It is the heaviest naturally occurring metal. However, it was not until 1938 when German physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann showed how uranium could be split into parts in order to yield energy, that its use became apparent through a process known as fission. It occurs when the element is split into two lighter fragments after being bombarded with neutrons. Energy is released in the process.
Today, uranium is the principal fuel used in nuclear reactors. It is also the main raw material for nuclear weapons. Uranium mining is important because, by comparison, when coal is used as a fuel, it produces more than one million times the waste. When uranium is manufactured, it is transformed into small pellets that are about the size of a pencil eraser. Each of those pellets contains as much energy as 150 gallons of oil.
Not only that, but, high level spent fuel product from the electricity consumption of one person’s lifetime from uranium would be encapsulated in a vitrified glass disc the size of the palm of an average person’s hand. Moreover, since everyone is exposed to background radiation all the time from rocks, soils, food, air, medical imaging, and flying, it is considered safe.
Uranium production is not much different than any other element production. This is due to the fact that the uranium itself has a very low level of radioactivity as compared to granite and virtually all of the radioactive material in the ore ends up in the tailings dam. However, the small amount of radioactivity associated with the uranium ore requires some special management. This is done in addition to the general environmental controls that are put forth in any mine.
Natural uranium is critical in the production of electricity through nuclear power. Moreover, it is the only proven power source that can affordably provide large amounts of primarily domestic energy without producing atmospheric emissions. This one of the many reasons why nuclear energy has become a logical choice for nations that are struggling to reconcile their energy policies with their economic, environmental, and security objectives.
It is believed that U.S. based uranium mining companies supply approximately three to four percent of the world’s known uranium. The country produces about 4.3 percent of the world’s supply. This is despite the fact that it operates only about one-quarter of the world’s commercial power reactors. However, as nuclear power expands, it will become more and more critical that uranium resources be accessible when mining can be done in a safe and economical way.
Studies show that the uranium requirements needed for fuel reactors could surpass 100,000 tons by 2020. The US ranks third in supply. Canada has the highest grade uranium while Australia has the most. It is also known that Kazakhstan, South Africa, Niger, Namibia, and Brazil have significant deposits. The U.S. faces substantial incentives to increase access to domestic uranium mining as a recent report showed that more than 35 reactors were under construction throughout the world.