Yellowcake, known as U3O8 to chemists, is a product obtained by treating uranium ore. Raw uranium ore does not usually contain very high concentrations of this useful mineral, so it must be refined to purify it and concentrate the uranium. The production of yellowcake is one step in the refinery process. This product is traded as a commodity in markets in several corners of the world, and some governments have expressed concerns about the production and sale of yellowcake because it can be used in the production of nuclear weapons.
Mills generate yellowcake by pulverizing the ore they mine and then leaching it with acidic chemicals to create a concentrated material which may be additionally refined and purified, depending on the source and the impurities which are present. As the name implies, yellowcake can indeed be yellowish to orange in color, with some mills producing brown, gray, or black yellowcake. It is often stored in large drums so that it can be conveniently inventoried, handled, and moved.
Also known as urania, yellowcake can be further refined for use in nuclear power plants such as those used to generate electricity and energy for submarines. Urania can also be enriched for use in specialized reactors, and in the construction of weapons. However, enrichment is far from a simple task, requiring specialized facilities, skills, and chemicals, so the average person on the street would be unable to take a drum of yellowcake and turn it into something dangerous. This makes the fears about dissemination of urania less worrisome, although this substance is still not necessarily something which should be readily available to anyone who wants it.
Yellowcake is radioactive, which means that special precautions must be taken when processing, handling, storing, and transporting it. Like other radioactive substances, urania can cause health problems if people are exposed to it, and it could be a serious pollution hazard if it was released into the environment in large amounts. Theoretically, yellowcake could be used to make a dirty bomb, with conventional explosives being used to distribute urania to contaminate an area and cause widespread fear.
Urania production is also a messy and potentially polluting process. The unwanted byproducts of refining, known as tailings, must be contained in some way and eventually disposed of, or they will make their way into the ground and into waterways, causing environmental issues. The mining industry sometimes finds itself under fire for failure to contain pollutants and control refinery sites.