Uses of Uranium
Is uranium needed?
When most people hear the words 'nuclear energy', they usually
think of nuclear weapons and
nuclear power stations. These are in fact what most uranium
is used for, in about equal amounts. Uranium has other uses, which however
require only a tiny amount of the world's uranium. Some of these uses can
be substituted for by less harmful products.
are a radioactive isotopes of an element. Some kinds of artificially produced
radioisotopes are used in medicine, industry, and in smoke detectors.
These radioisotopes are waste products of the nuclear industry.
Most radioisotopes used in medicine and industry do not
require uranium to produce. They can be produced by more up-to-date less
dangerous equipment known as cyclotrons and synchrotrons.
Smoke detectors also do not need radioisotopes. They may
use less dangerous optical detectors. These detectors are more reliable,
less dangerous and easier to dispose than ionization detectors using
radioisotopes which remain dangerous for many generations after the detector
has ceased to operate.
About half of the uranium mined today is used to produce
nuclear weapons. Most nuclear weapons countries used uranium in nuclear
weapons before they used uranium in nuclear power stations.
Of the 1100 nuclear reactors operating throughout the
world, only 430 are used to generate electricity. Uranium provides about
4% of the world's non-renewable energy.
About 280 reactors are used for other purposes including
the development of nuclear weapons. Research reactors have played an important
role in the spread of nuclear weapons.
More than 400 nuclear reactors have been used in ships
and submarines many of which are now in a bad state of repair in countries
that can no longer afford to maintain them. Australian ports are visited
from time to time by nuclear powered vessels, especially from the USA.
The USA also sends vessels carrying nuclear weapons to Australian ports
but has a policy of neither confirming nor denying which vessels are carrying
Depleted uranium is used for armour piercing shells and
missiles, and as ballast in yachts and aircraft. Uranium is readily converted
to finely divided radioactive uranium oxide dust during fires such as when
a plane crashes or when a missile explodes. This dust is readily inhaled
and is highly carcinogenic.
Uranium mined in Australia is exported to other countries
as yellow compound (ammonium diuranate), or as a khaki coloured oxide that
the nuclear industry calls yellowcake!
Australia does not have any nuclear power plants. Details
of aborted plans to construct a nuclear power plant some thirty years ago
at Jervis Bay near Sydney are still being kept secret. There are three
very old research reactors at Lucas Heights, west of Sydney. Only one of
these reactors (HIFAR) is still working. In addition to being used for
a range of research purposes, Lucas Heights produces medical isotopes most
of which could be produced more safely in medical cyclotrons and synchrotrons.
This reactor is the major source of the high. intermediate, and low level
nuclear waste, including the old nuclear reactors, that the Commonwealth
Government wants to dump in South Australia. There are plans to construct
an Argentinian nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights. This reactor would greatly
increase the rate of nuclear waste production.
|Uranium mined in Australia is probably
used to make nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons countries, such as France,
the USA, and the UK that buy uranium from Australia have signed agreements
which say that an amount of uranium equal to that purchased from
Australia will not be used in nuclear weapons. All uranium from Australia
goes to processing plants were it is mixed with uranium from other countries.
Separate facilities for weapons grade uranium are used only in the later
stages of processing.
Greater technical detail can be found on this topic by searching through
the listed briefing papers and education resources at
|In this section - Uses of Uranium
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