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.

Radioisotopes  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 nuclear weapons.

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 http://www.ccsa.asn.au/nic/.
In this section - Uses of Uranium


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