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What is Uranium?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 02, 2024
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Uranium is a metallic chemical element which is classified among the actinides on the periodic table of elements. It is perhaps most famous as the source of fuel for nuclear weapons and power plants, but it has a range of uses as well. Deposits of this element have been found in several regions of the world, and the element is fairly abundant in nature, keeping prices relatively low under normal conditions. Because this element is toxic and radioactive and because it has potentially very dangerous uses, access to the world's supply of uranium is tightly restricted.

When uranium is isolated from the metal ores it occurs in, it is a silvery white, very heavy metal which is extremely reactive and a little bit softer than steel. Because this element is so reactive, it quickly forms a thick gray to black tarnish when exposed to air. There are 14 known isotopes of uranium, and the element also appears in a number of chemical compounds, some of which have industrial uses. You can find this element on the periodic table of elements by looking for the “U” symbol, or atomic number 92.

Humans have actually been aware of this substance for a very long time. As early as the first century CE, uranium oxide was used in glass and pottery colorants. The element itself was isolated in 1789 by Martin Klaproth, who named it for the planet Uranus, which had only recently been discovered. It took another 100 years for people to realize that this element was radioactive, and several more decades elapsed before people recognized radioactivity as a health risk.

This element's reactivity makes it ideally suited to making fuel for nuclear power plants, reactors which power submarines, and of course nuclear weapons. The metal was also used in uranium glass before people realized this usage was dangerous, and it is used in nuclear medicine, research, and in dating of archaeological finds. Several militaries also use a form of uranium in high density penetrating rounds; this usage has been subject to controversy, as such rounds can potentially present a health risk if they are not properly disposed of.

Because uranium is toxic, it needs to be handled very carefully. It can cause severe organ damage, and its dust can irritate mucus membranes such as those found in the lungs. The radioactivity of the metal is also a health risk, as is the explosiveness of the dust. Most people who work around this element are trained to use basic safety precautions to keep their work safe.

AllTheScience is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllTheScience researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon973623 — On Oct 12, 2014

To tell you the truth, nobody knows what uranium looks like. Scientists keep it to themselves. Besides, working with uranium causes cancer.

By anon351644 — On Oct 15, 2013

What other elements react with uranium?

By anon215630 — On Sep 19, 2011

Where do they mine for uranium?

By anon185549 — On Jun 12, 2011

there is lots of uranium in canada.

By anon171792 — On May 01, 2011

where does it come from?

By anon117502 — On Oct 11, 2010

everywhere, but there is a great deal in australia.

By anon22300 — On Dec 01, 2008

where do they mine uranium ??

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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