Uranium is a radioactive element. Uranium atoms “break down” gradually, losing some of the particles that make up the atoms and releasing energy in the form of radiation.
This release of energy can be controlled to produce nuclear power. All nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons are fueled by uranium and other elements made by man from uranium.
Pure uranium looks something like steel, but it’s much heavier. Uranium is the heaviest natural element, and a cube of solid uranium one foot on a side would weigh more than 1,000 pounds!
Although abundant in the earth’s crust, uranium is almost never found in a pure fbrm in nature. A ton of uranium ore must be refined to produce just a few pounds of uranium.
This uranium has to be further refined before it can be used for nuclear power or nuclear weapons. But a single pound of refined uranium can produce as much energy as 3 million tons of coal!
The United States is the largest producer of uranium, accounting for about 45 percent of the uranium produced outside the Soviet Union and China. The figures for those two nations are unknown. Other major uranium producers include South Africa, Canada, and France.
The African nation of Niger, though it has no nuclear weapons and not a single nuclear power plant, ranks number five in the world in uranium reserves. Niger’s uranium, found mostly in the country’s northern desert region, accounts for about 10 percent of the world’s known uranium reserves.