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Uranium is a naturally occurring element, atomic number 92, found in low levels in all rock, soil and water. It is the highest numbered element that occurs naturally in quantity and is always found in combination with other elements. The natural, as distinct from man made, importance of uranium is as the source of the heat that keeps the outer core of the earth liquid and drives mantle convection and hence plate tectonics.

The average concentration of uranium in soil ranges from 1 to 11 parts per million (ppm) and in rock from 2 to 4 ppm. As a reference point, the concentration of silver in rock is just 0.05 to 0.1 ppm.

One of the earliest identified uses of uranium comes from a 1st century Roman villa in the Bay of Naples, Italy. Drinking glasses found there used uranium oxide as a yellow colorant. A thousand years later, this use as a colorant in glassmaking was evident in the Czech Republic, where pitchblende (also known as uraninite) was a by-product of silver mining at the Hapsburg's mines. Indeed, as late as the early 19th century, the world's only recorded source of uranium was from these mines.

The discovery of uranium as an element is attributed to Martin Heinrich Klaproth, in Berlin in 1789. He named the new element uranium after the planet Uranus, which had been discovered a few years earlier.

During the 19th century, uranium was generally regarded as a safe element and its main use continued as a colorant in glassmaking and ceramics. However, this was also a century of major scientific discoveries and some of those concerned uranium and lead directly to its current significance in medicine, power generation and military use. In 1841, Eugene-Melchior Peligot, a professor at the Central School of Arts and Manufactures in Paris, heated uranium tetrachloride and potassium and thus produced the first recorded uranium metal. Then, in 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen, while experimenting with X rays and energy sources, recorded the skeletal hand of his wife on a photographic plate when she accidentally moved her hand into the beam of the electron rays. Another accidental discovery occurred a year later, when Antoine Becquerel exposed a photographic plate to uranium crystals and found that the weak radioactivity in the crystals exposed the photographic plates. Pierre and Marie Curie were working with Becquerel and their work on the electrical conductivity of pitchblende led to the discovery of polonium and radium. Marie Curie later established that radiation was an atomic property and not an independent release.

Ernest Rutherford, Joseph John Thompson, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr were all party to discoveries and developments in scientific understanding that lead to the theory of splitting the atom and the knowledge that energy was intensely concentrated within the atom's nucleus. Research published in 1939 by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman showed that the absorption of a neutron by a uranium nucleus sometimes caused the nucleus to split with the release of enormous amounts of energy. This splitting, or breaking apart, was referred to as nuclear fission, and collaboration by Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago created the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction inside the world's first nuclear reactor.

The timing of these developments was unfortunate as World War II was raging and the release of such enormous power through nuclear fission was seized on for military use. This culminated in the dropping of the uranium based atomic bomb over Hiroshima in 1945.

Happily, the civic uses of nuclear power received attention after World War II and, in 1952, the town of Arco, Idaho, became the first in the world to have all of its electricity supplied by nuclear power. Then, in 1956, the first commercial scale nuclear power plant was commissioned, in Calder Hall, England. In January 2009, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) reported that 432 nuclear power plants were operating in 30 different countries. These are producing 14% of global electricity requirements.

Despite operating at ever increasing levels of sophistication and safety, nuclear power plants engage heightened public attention when things go wrong. The latest serious incident occurred in March 2011 when a tsunami wrecked the Fukushima facility in NE Japan. This plant was 40 years old and, it was later evealed, had a dubious maintenance record. Included in the fall-out from this incident was the decision of Germany, Switzerland and Italy to abandon nuclear as a source of electrical power. Nothwithstanding, The World Nuclear Association (WNA) records (October 2011) that the aggregate number of plants currently operating, under construction, facilities in the planning stage and plants in the proposal stage was 990, an increase of 197 since October 2008.

Finally, the imbalance between uranium mined and uranium demand deserves attention. The WNA records that the 432 nuclear plants currently in operation require an annual supply of 62,552 tonnes of Uranium (73,768 t U3O8). It also records that 2010 mining production amounted to just 53,663 tonnes of Uranium (63,285 t U3O8). Not only is the supply of uranium for new nuclear plants in question but so also is the supply necessary to make up the 17% shortfall for existing plants. (The present shortfall is made up by recycling and the nuclear fuel available from the program of decommissioning of Soviet warheads, which program completes in 2013).

Useful links

The following Internet sites provide broader information on the uranium market and further background and history of uranium. The links are provided as a convenience only and this does not imply endorsement by Kirrin Resources Inc. of the policies stated or the views expressed therein.

World Nuclear Association:
Energy from nuclear fuel www.world-nuclear.org
Canadian Nuclear Society:
Supporting Canada's nuclear industry www.cns-snc.ca
Nuclear Energy Institute:
NEI is a USA based policy organization for the nuclear technologies industry www.nei.org
The UX Consulting Company, LLC:
Complete consulting and information services in the uranium industry www.uxc.com