Uranium: Born of the Stars
In the history of humanity, there have been few commodities as conflicted as uranium. This fantastic element, born of the stars, can be both a blessing of energy production, or a curse of nuclear destruction, being extraordinarily effective in both cases.
As the race begins to a carbon neutral planet and the reduction of fossil fuels, nuclear energy presents an attractive option to effectively lower harmful emissions while providing the power needed to keep our world moving forward.
But what about the dark stains on the reputation of this element? Nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and the destruction unleashed by the atomic bomb during the second World War are often cited as reasons we should disregard nuclear as an option and leave our planet’s veritable treasure trove of uranium resources, in the ground for good.
However, for the first time in years, a conflicting voice is rising up in unison. One that commends nuclear as perhaps the only way to save the planet from climate change. Environmentalists, corporations, and world governments are starting to roll out the red carpet for nuclear energy, seeing it as a cost-effective and environmentally sound path to steer away from polluting fuels like oil and coal.
On today’s episode of Commodity Culture, we’ll be talking about the good, the bad, and the radioactive, from incredible facts about uranium’s inter-planetary origins, to power plant malfunctions and meltdowns, and to a conclusion about the role to come for uranium in humanity’s energy economy.
What is Uranium?
Uranium is as complex as it is paradoxical, a versatile element with dormant powers both inspiring and terrifying.
It is made up of 92 Electrons and Protons, and between 141 to 146 Neutrons, depending on the isotope variety, of which there are 5, with Uranium 238 being the most common. Uranium has an atomic weight of 238.03 Atomic Mass Units, and has a half life of around 4 billion years.1
Uranium on earth is believed to have originally been produced in one or more supernovae stars some 6 billion years ago. This process is described by the Oxford Dictionary of Physics as:
“An explosive brightening of a star in which the energy radiated by it increases by a factor of ten billion... A supernova explosion occurs when a star has burned up all its available nuclear fuel and the core collapses catastrophically.”
This collapse causes the ejection of the star’s remnants into space, and Uranium is a major part of that explosive reaction.
Research also indicates that uranium could be formed as the result of a merger between neutron stars. The extreme density of this kind of star, a whopping 5 billion tonnes per teaspoon, causes it to react violently when it meets its twin in space.
Gravitational forces cause the stars to converge and generate intense gravitational waves, along with the mass production, not only of uranium, but of gold and platinum as well.2
Cosmochemists, and yes that’s a thing, have been examining and contemplating the patterns and trends in the data when it comes to the origins of Uranium for quite some time, and new truths may yet be uncovered in the future that lies ahead.
Despite its mysterious and fantastic origin story, uranium is actually one of the most common elements in the earth’s crust, right along with tin and tungsten, and also occurs naturally to some degree in seawater.
Amazingly, although it is now rare in our solar system, the uranium still present in the ground is the provider of the main heat source within the core of our planet. This is the result of a slow radioactive decay, which is part of Uranium’s natural life cycle.3 The resulting heat and radiation contribute to continental drift, or the movement of the earth that results in the shifting of continents over millennia.
As if all of that wasn’t insane enough, there have been at least 17 naturally occurring nuclear reactors mentioned in scientific literature that went online due to water spontaneously interacting with radiation emitted from Uranium. They were all located in Gabon, West Africa, and over their incredible 2 million year lifetimes, they produced approximately 5.4 tonnes of fission products and 1.5 tonnes of plutonium products into the surrounding ore body.4
In modern history, Uranium has had two main uses, completely paradoxical to each other: a clean, carbon neutral, and highly efficient form of energy production, and an instrument of the most horrific destruction imaginable that could lay the whole planet to waste, were it fully unleashed.
Nuclear reactors create intense heat from the splitting of uranium atoms, known as nuclear fission, which then generates steam that powers turbines to generate electricity.
The reactors consist of three main components. The first is the fuel bundles, made of thin rods filled with fissionable nuclei, which consists of Uranium 235 or Uranium 238, although light water reactors use 235 for fission. The bundles are placed in the reactor core, and the fission which takes place is moderated by the second component, water.
The water acts as a moderator by sustaining the nuclear reaction. It does this by slowing down the speed of the energy in neutrons produced by nuclear fission, thus allowing for a sustained chain reaction that ensures the fission occurs at a reliable rate.
This process is further refined through the use of control rods to manage the fission process. Made of boron or cadmium, the rods absorb the excess neutrons produced in the water to prevent further reactions. The control rods can be withdrawn to increase the rate of reaction, and inserted again to slow the reaction down. This ensures a steady output of energy is maintained.
The way this whole process works could warrant its own video, and indeed there are many you can find on Youtube if you’re interested to dive deeper, but suffice to say, this energy source is highly efficient. One single fuel pellet of Uranium, around the size of a finger tip, contains the same amount of energy as approximately one ton of coal, 149 gallons of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.5
We’ll explore the devastating effects of nuclear weaponry up ahead in our History section but for now, let’s take a look at how Uranium is extracted from the earth.
How is Uranium Mined?
The mining of Uranium was first implemented on a large scale in the Czech Republic in the late 19th century. Once it was discovered that Uranium could be converted into Plutonium in a nuclear reactor in 1944, American Brigadier General Leslie Groves and his opaquely named Combined Development Trust, moved swiftly to mine as much of it as possible, pouring 40 million dollars into Uranium mining in just three years of operations.
Today, the vast majority of the world’s Uranium is mined for the purpose of creating nuclear fuel to provide energy and, as I’ll be mentioning from time to time, it’s one of the cleanest burning fuels around and really easy on the environment.
Over 50% of Uranium deposits today use the In-situ method of mining.Using this method, water wells are drilled into the Uranium ore body, and mining solutions, along with water, are pumped underground. These solutions dissolve the uranium from the rock and the dissolved uranium is then brought to the surface and extracted from the water through a treatment process.
Open pit mining is a method that can be used if the uranium ore rests within 100 metres of the earth’s surface. Excavators and other machinery are used to dig up waste rock and soil, and a combination of drilling and explosives break up the rock, and it’s ready for transport.
In conventional underground Uranium mines, a series of vertical shafts are dug which lead to the depth of the ore. Horizontal chambers, tunnels, and ramps are then constructed to allow direct access to the uranium. Various methods of drilling and boring are employed, and the extracted ore is collected and ground, mixed with water, then pumped to the surface.
When dealing with tunnel-based deposits, miners operate equipment by remote control to minimize exposure to radiation emitting from the ore and protect themselves from falling rocks in the mine.
After mining, the ore is taken by trucks to a mill facility, where it is ground and crushed before being leeched in large tanks.
The resulting solution is then taken through a number of refining steps which eventually end in drying the finished product into yellowcake and packing it into drums.
The next stage in the process sees the yellowcake shipped to a conversion facility, where it is further processed for use as nuclear fuel.
The area of the world with the highest grade Uranium deposits is the Athabasca Basin in Saskatchewan, Canada, often referred to as the Saudi Arabia of Uranium. Some of the world’s largest Uranium mining companies are located here and some of the deposit grades are so incredible, no other area of the planet can even come close.
Other prominent Uranium-rich areas include Niger and Namibia in Africa, Australia, Russia and perhaps most notably, Kazakhstan, which has been one of the world’s leading producers for quite some time. The Kazaks started exploring for Uranium way back in 1943 and the country currently boasts 50 known deposits of Uranium across six of its provinces.6
A History of Uranium
Although it was Eugene Peligot, a French professor of Analytical Chemistry, who first isolated pure Uranium in 1841, Uranium Oxide was first extracted from pitchblende and identified by German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth in 1789.7
However, Uranium has been known of since at least 79 A.D, when Uranium Oxide was used as a coloring agent for ceramic glazes and glass in the Roman Empire.
The world’s first nuclear power plant used to generate electricity was the EBR-1, or Experimental Breeder Reactor, in Idaho, which opened in 1951 and was where the world’s first reactor capable of generating usable amounts of electricity was designed and built. As it stands today in 2021, there are approximately 445 nuclear reactors operational in some 30 countries around the globe.8
Although nuclear energy is among the safest, cleanest and most efficient forms of energy currently accessible on planet earth, its controversial history, arising from the effects of nuclear weapons and accidents such as those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, has left fear in the hearts of the general public to this very day.
The widespread impact resulting from the first atomic bombs being dropped on Japan during the Second World War, still seems unimaginable.
Americans were first in the race to nuclear armament, dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on the morning of what was a particularly beautiful summer’s day, in August of 1945.
43 seconds after being released from the B-29 Bomber plane Enola Gay, named after the mother of pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets, the bomb, named Little Boy, detonated.
Little Boy exploded directly over a surgical clinic with the force of more than 15,000 tons of TNT. It is estimated that less than two percent of the bomb's uranium achieved fission. But the blast engulfed the area in a blinding flash of heat and light and largely destroyed Hiroshima, a modern city on Japan's Honshu Island.
The resulting fires burned for days and destroyed a 4 square mile area of the city and for those who didn’t succumb to fatal burns, many died from the effects of radiation poisoning in the days, months, and years that followed. It is estimated that a total of 150,000 people were killed.9
The generational impact of birth defects due to the radiation is still being felt to this day. The U.S dropped another atomic bomb onto Japan three days later on August 9, 1945, this time in Nagasaki, which drove the Japanese to finally surrender, putting an end to World War 2. The Nagasaki bombing was estimated to have cost 60,000 to 80,000 lives overall.
President Truman, who issued the orders to drop the bombs, attempted to reassure the general public that this great tragedy was necessary to save countless more lives by ending the war. History will be his judge.
On the other side of the coin for uranium, it really does provide one of the cleanest, safest, and most efficient forms of energy in nuclear, making it ideal, and some would say essential, in the move towards a carbon neutral future.
There are, of course, deep controversies surrounding nuclear energy as well, mainly driven by the handful of plant accidents that have occurred, perhaps none so catastrophic as the Chernobyl meltdown.
April 25, 1986. Pripyat, Ukraine, in what was then the Soviet Union. The Chernobyl 4 reactor crew were preparing to test new voltage regulator designs that would help increase the time the core reactor could still be cooled in the case of a loss of main electricity generation at the plant.
The ensuing accident was largely viewed as being caused by a lack of safety culture in the Soviet Union but Chernobyl’s RBMK, a Russian acronym that roughly translates to “high-power channel reactor”, had an extremely flawed design from the start that greatly increased the chances of it failing at some point.10
Worst of all, the operators who were controlling the plant had no idea of the inherent design flaws in the reactor and so were not prepared for the disaster that followed.
While employees began running the voltage regulator tests, there was a lack of communication between operators who ran highly sensitive parts of the system and safety personnel on site.
A blatant disregard for the minimum allowable 15 control rods required according to operating procedures, using only 8, certainly played a role in the outcome as well.
The complexities of this disaster are so deep that I won’t go into all the factors that led up to the initial explosion, but two of them occurred in total: the first being a steam explosion, with a second following a few seconds later, mainly attributed to zirconium-steam reactions.
Structural materials and fuel were blasted out of the explosions, igniting fires to the surrounding area and exposing the now destroyed core to the atmosphere. The blast killed one worker on the site, and another worker passed away in the hospital a few hours later.
The ensuing smoke that was emitted from the reactor also carried with it radioactive fission products that spread into the surrounding atmosphere and 22 plant workers, along with 6 of the the initial firefighters who came to the blast zone, were later felled by acute radiation poisoning as a result of exposure.
Of course, the Chernobyl disaster had a far reaching effect on the Soviet Union beyond just the initial casualties, and it is without a doubt, the worst nuclear accident to date.
So when it comes to using uranium to provide energy, is the benefit worth the potential danger and could we see another incident like Chernobyl again in the future? While nothing is impossible, the safety protocols and oversight have massively improved in the nuclear energy sector over the years and both the design of new plants and the upgrades available to existing ones, provide a superior level of protection level of protection from something as catastrophic as a core meltdown occurring.
It is also very important to separate the use of uranium to produce energy, and its use in the manufacturing of nuclear weapons. The two used to be somewhat connected, in fact Chernobyl was a joint energy production and weapons manufacturing plant, another factor that led to its inherent flaws, but there is no connection between the two industries today.
The truth is, we can’t be one-hundred percent sure what the future holds but I believe the benefits of nuclear far outweigh the risks and I’ll explain why as we look into the role of uranium in the years ahead.
Three Mile Island 1979 and Fukushima 2011
Two other notable nuclear accidents were Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania in 1979, and the Fukushima disaster in 2011. While both certainly had a negative impact, including some elderly Japanese hospital patients in Fukushima passing away from the stress of being suddenly moved outside of the radiation zone, both resulted in zero fatalities aside from these unfortunate victims of sudden transit.
Nuclear energy actually accounts for an extremely small percentage of Deaths from Energy Production worldwide, clocking in well below coal, oil, and natural gas. In fact, a paper from NASA’s Goddard Institute published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in 2013, concluded that 1.84 million lives had been saved from 1971 to 2009, thanks to the reduction in air pollution afforded by using nuclear energy, instead of burning fossil fuels.
The Future of Uranium and Carbon Neutrality
Although nuclear energy used to have a lot of detractors, and certainly still does, more and more environmentalists, governments, and ESG-focused companies, have woken up to the fact that nuclear power is not the boogey man it’s been made out to be by agenda-driven politicians and ill-informed media pundits.
Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydro will almost certainly play a role, and a mix of these, along with nuclear, can push us closer to carbon neutrality. At the moment, the logistics of moving to purely renewable energy, from both a technical and economic perspective, are tenuous at best and nuclear’s rise from the ashes presents an opportunity that I believe humanity needs to seize.
Although it’s the decisions like Germany’s baffling order to phase nuclear energy out that make headlines, the truth is that nuclear power is on the rise all around the globe.
China, India, South Korea, the UAE, Turkey, Russia, Japan and many other countries currently have new nuclear reactors under construction.
The decree put forth by the Paris Climate Agreement has created a race to carbon neutral, but those who are in a rush to get there would do well to mind just what price they are willing to pay to label themselves ‘green’, as the adoption of wide-scale renewable energy requires an incredible amount of fossil fuels to bring online, along with a host of other issues.
Large-scale development of nuclear power is the most reliable and fastest way to a carbon neutral planet, and although still looked down upon in some political circles, the truth of the power of nuclear, and uranium, has a real shot of being revealed in the years to come. And that’s good news for planet earth.
About Jesse Day
Jesse Day is a video producer and writer with a focus on commodities and natural resources. Jesse’s vision for Commodity Culture is to provide education to anyone interested in exploring the delicate balance of commodities and the vital role they play in our economy and our lives. Jesse studied film at Capilano University, and currently works as Communications Coordinator at Kin Communications Investor Relations in Vancouver. Jesse has also had a fairly long career in broadcasting in Asia, having hosted a variety of travel programs in China and South Korea.
Find out more about Sprott Physical Uranium Trust.
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