Does anyone care about uranium, anymore?

I mean, in the way people supposedly did in the 1950’s, what with individuals packing Geiger counters and going out prospecting, like 49’s of yore. Back then I think it was pretty much expected that soon most of our stationary power would come from nuclear reactors, so uranium was the next big precious metal.

Now that the nuclear power industry seems to have fizzled, and thankfully there are only so many nuclear weapons that anyone could possibly want to manufacture, does anyone go looking for uranium any more? It’s supposedly more common than silver and many other metals; so does it have a price in terms of so many dollars an ounce?

Saddam does!

If you find a uranium mine and you dont want it. Call ME!!

It is not as common as you think and it is certainly worth a great deal. Even if the perception that nuclear power is fading were true, sit on the mine a few decades and watch the world wide demand increase exponentially. Right now, environmentalists and conservation laws are keeping profitability low.

They don’t go digging for uranium any more, but fluorescent uranium glass is of interest. I collect it myself, and think it’s really cool.

Is Plutonium a man-made version of Uranium or is it a natural element?

It’s neither. It’s another element (it has a different number of protons) but it is synthesized in a lab, not natural. Two elements whose proton numbers add up to plutonium’s (92, IIRC) are fused together. Plutonium emits energy particles because it is unstable. Eventually, it decays to more stable elements, until it completely stable (like lead).

sleeping - Thank you. I assume plutonium was invented for the nuclear bomb program and not nuclear powerplant useage? And was it invented because it was cheaper and easier to make it, than to make U-235, but just as unstable?

Plutonium is not a “version of uranium.” It is an element in its own right. However, none of its isotopes are stable enough for it to be present on Earth naturally. In other words, any plutonium initially present on Earth decayed away eons ago.

Plutonium is produced in nuclear reactors as a by-product of fission reactions. It is produced when uranium is bombarded by neutrons. This is essentially element transmutation.

Plutonium is element 94 – each atom has 94 protons. The half-life of the longest-lived isotope is still short enough that any primordial plutonium has long since broken down (though IIRC there are trace quantities of it in uranium ore, owing to natural irradiation of U-238 and its breakdown).

The scoop on why it’s useful is that only selected isotopes undergo spontaneous fission when a critical mass of them is assembled. Well over 99% of Uranium today is U-238, which does not undergo spontaneous fission. Isolating the fraction of a percent of U-235, which does, from the U-238 is a laborious chore. However, if U-238 is brought into contact with an operating power pile, it’s irradiated by the neutrons from the pile and its atoms absorb the neutrons, being transformed into U-239, which rapidly undergoes two beta decays to Ne-239 and Pu-239. The latter is moderately long-lived and does undergo spontaneous fission. However, the raw element is quite poisonous, and both element and its compounds are fairly dangerous in terms of radiation exposure. (It’s often handled in the oxide to minimize the first danger, Pu0 not being particularly toxic externally.)

And yes, it was first created for the bomb program, and only later used in power plants. (I don’t believe any plants running on Pu are presently in existence, though I’d be glad to see that contradicted.)

Personally, I think that careful production and use of Pu would do a lot to alleviate power problems, with due attention to security. However, there are enough “scare stories” about it out there to make this ulikely.

Plutonium was originally produced in the Manhattan Project, as an alternate method of producing an atomic bomb. A plutonium-type atomic bomb is set off by compressing a plutonium sphere with explosives, while a uranium-type bomb is set off by firing one chunk of uranium at another (the so-called “gun bomb”).

Plutonium-type bombs are somewhat more efficient, compact, and “elegant” than uranium-type bombs.

(BTW, it’s not really proper to say that plutonium was “invented.” It’s an element. There was plutonium in the Universe long before us.)

Plutonium could be used in nuclear power plants, but people seem somewhat wary of doing so, given the controls on plutonium, and its potential for weapons use. The U.S. had a program for “breeder reactors” back in the 1970s to produce plutonium for use in power production, but the program was killed.

If you’re interested in this topic, you might check out the following book:

“The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes

Thank you Robby & Polycarp - one more question:

What’s the difference between a hydrogen bomb and an atomic bomb? I assume that the H-bomb does not use uranium or plutonium, but rather hydrogen, and the atomic uses the above atoms???

An atomic bomb uses a critical mass of U or Pu to cause a near-instantaneous fission chain reaction.

A hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb derives most of its power from the fusion of H into He. It would however be incorrect to say that it does not use U or Pu, because a fission reaction from one of them is what produces the enormously high temperature and pressure needed to fuse H into He. They serve as the “trigger” for the fusion explosion.

H-bombs are immensely more powerful than A-bombs, both because H fusion produces more energy per unit of matter acted on than does U or Pu fission, and because there are definite limits to the size of a fission bomb but any limits to the size of a fusion bomb are immensely larger (“size” here meaning explosive capability, not physical dimensions).

There are a bunch of refinements on this – putting hydrogen at the core of a fission bomb or the trigger of a fusion bomb, for example, or tailoring the explosion characteristics of a fusion bomb to minimize blast and maximize radiation – the “neutron bomb” in the news some years ago. But the above states the basic difference between the two of them.

Or you can use natural or enriched uranium in a breeder plant.

Sure, there’s a market! Quite a large part of the world energy supply comes from nuclear power plants. There’s even an on-line uranium marketplace at UraniumOnline, although it hasn’t been active since 2001. The most popular form seems to be uranium hexaflouride (UF[sub]6[/sub]), which sells at a price around USD30/kg (that’s per kg or U, the F is free…)

One big difference between Gold (to go back to your '49 comparison) and Uranium, is that the U is normaly found in very dilute concentrations, and in complex compounds. The 49-ers could just go out in the forest with a pick-axe and a pan, and find gold nuggets. In order to extract useable U, you need a very complex infrastructure, partially as many of the compounds are extremely toxic.

In the 60’s many countries seized on their U deposits as a resource of national security, and tried to extract U from even the minutest concentrations. Today they buy it whole-sale from huge mines in Australia, where it’s more easily extracted.

You are correct. Traces of natural Pu have been found in mines. A nuclear engineer I used to work with told me about a research project where they went “prospecting” for it. :eek: IIRC, they also found traces (absolutely microscopic) of Americium as well.

I had the opportunity a few years ago to working with a trucking company that transports nuclear fuel for power reactors in sourthern Ontario. The fuel was refined, milled uranium pellets. I saw the weighbills, and it was incredibly expensive - one load of fuel was worth millions and millions of dollars.

Uranium mining is still going strong–although subject to market fluctuations, of course, as all mining operations are.

Here is a link to one mining operation. Last time I checked (some time ago), “Yellow Cake” Uranium ore was selling for about $40/kg.

Thanks everyone for responding.

That uranium glass sounds cool. I also remember reading that U compounds used to be used in ceramic glazes also; I would expect those are also flourescent.

To follow up on what Poly said, you can get a bigger boom without going all the way to a full-scale hydrogen device. This is the putting hydrogen at the core of a fission device that he was talking about. The first experiment with this was trittium boosting, back in the late 40s. Gives a bigger boom without having to increase the size of the critical mass. I think these tests were done somewhere in the Pacific (Marshall Islands, Christmas Island, or Johnson Atoll), or if I’m wrong and trittium boosting didn’t start until the 50s, at the Nevada Test Site.

One more note on the difference between U235 and Pu239 in bomb-making… It was originally thought that Pu239 might be a more practical material for a bomb core because is it distinct from uranium. Since only U235 (not the much more common U238) is usable in a fission bomb, some way needed to be found to separate the two isotopes on a large scale. This was one of the major undertakings of the Manhattan Project. They thought that since plutonium was a different element with different chemical properties, relatively simple chemical separation techniques could be used to purify it. They were right, as far as it goes, but just manufacturing more than trace amounts of plutonium in the first place turned out to be an equally major undertaking.

In olden days, trace ammounts of Uranium were also added to the ceramic that they made dentures from.