Uranium is found everywhere, and is actually more common than gold, silver and even mercury. It occurs naturally in soil, rock and even the ocean.
Uranium is made through volcanic activity right at the core of the earth, in the crust, and was formed in the super novae about 6.6 billion years ago. It is a gray radioactive metallic substance, which is very solid and is the main source of earth’s internal heat.
Uranium is named after the planet Uranus, which was discovered 8 years before uranium was discovered in 1789. It has been mined for many years, but has been used for energy purposes for less than 50 years.
The uranium atom is the heaviest of all naturally occurring elements, and almost 20 times as dense as water. Natural uranium is a mixture of the uranium -238 isotope (U-238) (about 1%) and uranium-235 (U-235) (about 99%).
Isotopes are forms that help to categorize the uranium element. They differ in the number of neutrons they have, and therefore there are many different uranium isotopes available.
The particle, uranium-235 (U-235) is special because this atom can easily be split, causing the release of a lot of energy. Because it is can easily be split, it is called “fissile”, and that is how the term “nuclear fission” comes.
A nuclear fission occurs when a U-235 atom splits when it captures a moving neutron. This split into two releases heat energy. During this process about 2 or 3 neutrons are dispersed (thrown off).
A fission chain reaction happens when the nuclei of a U-235 captures many neutrons that have been dispersed causing them to release even more neutrons. A huge amount of heat is released when this fission chain reaction is happens repeatedly.
A fission chain reaction can release a huge amount of heat from a relatively small amount of uranium.
A nuclear reactor is made to control a nuclear fission chain reaction so that nothing is destroyed. It is controlled by carefully placed rods, which absorb neutrons and act as power controllers within the reactor.
This process is surrounded by a substances like water, heavy water and graphite which act as moderators, slowing the speed of the dispersed neutrons, and this ensures that the chain reaction continues.
A nuclear electrical power plant uses the steam generated by controlled nuclear fission to power generators and turbines. This is similar to the mechanism of gas or coal power stations.
Nuclear power is used for energy and electricity production. The military and some civilian ships use a nuclear power technology called marine propulsion to power their ships. Space programs are on the verge of using nuclear fission and fusion power for space missions.
Nuclear power can produce electricity when deposits of coal and oil start decreasing. This means that there will be a constant supply of electricity to match the increasing demands.
One ton of uranium has the potential of producing more electricity that millions of tons and barrels of coal and oil can. This makes it an extremely efficient energy source.
Nuclear power plants also require less fuel, and do not release hazardous greenhouse gasses like conventional fossil fuel power plants do.
Humans are at risk of being exposed to uranium if they inhale dust in the air or drink water that it is contaminated with. Although the percentage of uranium in the air is extremely small, people who work in biohazard areas are especially at risk.
Buildings and houses built over uranium deposits can also have a increased risk of radon gas leakage (another radioactive property of uranium).
When uranium gets into the body, it is either passed out through digestion (soluble uranium) or it accumulates for many years in the lungs, liver, reproductive organs, kidney, and bone tissue (insoluble uranium). This can have many harmful effects including birth defects in newborns.
Uranium cannot be absorbed through the skin because the alpha particles cannot penetrate through the skin.
In nuclear power plants, uranium is handled with gloves and kept in containers. This done to make sure no one inhales or accidently swallows any of it.
There is a potential waste disposal problem with nuclear reactors. Reactors produce nuclear waste, which release dangerous radiation, which need to be disposed of properly.
Many reactors now have special cooling pools that store nuclear waste to take care of this problem.
The Three Mile Island disaster (1979), the Chernobyl disaster (1986), and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011) are three of the most popular nuclear power plant accidents. Apart from these, there are a few nuclear powered submarine disasters.
Because of all these disasters and the potential long-term dangers associated with them, many countries around the world are rethinking their strategies on nuclear power, with some even closing down many of their reactors.
One of the biggest dangers of nuclear power is if it is misused. There is enough nuclear energy in the world to kill every person on earth. Nuclear weapons have become a constant point of tension, and people often become fearful of a nuclear war.
A German chemist, Martin Klaproth, first discovered uranium in 1789, in a mineral called pitchblende. However, he named the black powder compound he found uranium, which later turned out to be a mistake.
It was in 1841 that French scientist Eugene Peligot was able to isolate the pure chemical compound, and soon after that in 1896, French physicist, Antoine Becquerel, discovered its radioactive properties.
The famous couple, Marie and Pierre Curie found its association with atoms in 1898 while exploring its radioactive properties. This also led to another discovery of theirs, two other radioactive elements in pitchblende- polonium and radium.
The nuclear age started in 1942, when Enrico Fermi started a chain reaction with some uranium. Soon after that, the famous hydrogen bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dropped by the USA in 1945, and finally in 1956 the world’s first nuclear power plant was opened in England.
Climate change that causes sudden heat waves can have a negative impact on nuclear power plants. Also sea water’s corrosive property is likely to affect nuclear power plants.
The U-235 got its name from the 92 protons and the 143 neutrons it is made up of.
A nuclear reactor’s life span is only about forty to fifty years.
The future of nuclear power is rather debatable. With the obvious benefits, there are the accidents that have caused people to rethink their opinions of nuclear power. Of these, the most recent Fukushima accident is the main topic of concern.
There is also a tendency to favour other renewable and non-renewable energy sources, which would comparatively have less damaging effects.