Is Uranium Dangerous?

Facts About Uranium You May Not Know

Recently I became interested in an old flame, no not a woman, I’m happily married, it was actually more of an old interest; quantum physics. I’ve always been curious about the subject and I finally decided to start doing something about it, instead of just watching interesting videos that is. With this interest I also began developing a curiosity for chemistry and developing my own advanced chemistry set. Anyhow, as I began researching and learning more about both, I became especially interested in the elements. And interested in one specifically (which as you may have guessed by the title): uranium. As a gift for myself I decided I wanted to get some uranium but first, as any responsible person would do, I wanted to know more about it. Especially whether owning uranium was dangerous or not, so here’s some of my fact finding.

uranium certificate

There are several types of uranium ore, and the one I purchased is a gummite and carnotite mix (you can see a picture of it at top). I got mine from United Nuclear and my postman delivered it. I wonder what he would think, if he knew.

Video: To ensure that the uranium ore that I was sent was indeed real (meaning radioactive) I needed a Geiger counter.

You may be wondering, isn’t uranium radioactive and isn’t that dangerous to have delivered, let alone own? Uranium exists in its natural state as 99% U-238 and .7% U-235, and yes, uranium is radioactive but mildly so, unlike polonium (which it sometimes gets confused with) which is indeed highly radioactive. In fact, it’s 100 billion times more deadly than hydrogen cyanide and even a minuscule amount of polonium can kill you. I would say polonium is worse than smoking but recently trace amounts have been found in tobacco products, no wonder tobacco kills. I should stop putting that junk in my mouth.

Ok, back to uranium’s radioactivity. Uranium has a half life of 4.5 billion years, so in the past 4.5 billon years 1/2 of all the uranium on earth has decayed into lead. As uranium decays it puts off radiation in the form of alpha and beta particles as well as gamma rays.

uranium decay process

Uranium goes through a chain of decay 14 times before it is transformed into a stable form of lead. Some of the elements in the chain of decay only have a half-life lasting seconds. One of the elements on its way to lead is polonium, cool right?

So, Is Uranium Dangerous?

Alpha, beta, gamma: No I’m not talking about a sorority. These are the three radioactive forms of radiation, and they are the byproducts of the chain of decay of uranium and each have varying levels of danger. Radiation from uranium decay starts out with alpha particles. When uranium decays it is converted into helium as the alpha particle, and thorium as the daughter nucleus.

helium radiation decay

beta decay of thorium 235 nucleus graphic

The next element down the chain is Thorium-234. As it decays, an electron and an antineutrino are ejected from the nucleus, and these are beta particles. The proton is converted into a neutron, which is known as beta decay, causing thorium to change into protactinium. During this process the atom gets into an excited state and wants to drop to a lower energy level, and it does this through gamma ray emissions. Gamma rays are photons, or packs of electromagnetic radiation, like x-rays, and are the most dangerous outside the body.

As we touched on it a bit already, yes, uranium can be dangerous, but knowing the process of decay that we just went over helps you understand how to be safe if you do encounter it. Here are a few explanations to help with what you just learned:

Alpha particles are not able to break the outer layer of the skin, however it is the most dangerous form of radiation if inhaled or ingested. Due to its strong ionizing properties it is easily absorbed by the body, damaging the cells, and too much of it will certainly cause death. Beta particles and gamma rays are more dangerous outside the body than alpha particles because they can break the skin and cause cell damage.

alpha beta gamma ray dangers

Uranium sounds dangerous but remember the half life is 4.5 billion years, so the radiation coming off it is slow and therefore mild, but wear gloves when handling and don’t ingest or inhale it. Even though the sample uranium ore I have is only mildly radioactive (up to 3,000 CPM) I won’t be sleeping with it, in fact I keep my ore in a shed, in the back yard.

What is Uranium Used For?

tank armor30mm penetrating round bullet

You may wonder what’s all this uranium used for? Most know it’s used for nuclear weapons and reactor fuel in the form of uranium isotope U-235. The reason U-235 is used in reactors and nuclear weapons is because it is known as fissile material. It’s easiest to create fission using U-235 due to its cross section’s abilities to absorb neutrons therefore making it fissile. The 0.7% of U-235 in natural uranium has to go through refinement to be extracted, leaving the uranium isotope U-238 behind, which is known as depleted uranium.

U-238 is not considered to be fissionable, but can be added to a fission reactor, known as a breeder reactor, to produce plutonium 239 which is fissionable. Breeder reactors produce more fissile material than it consumes, pretty amazing right.

Depleted uranium also has many uses, such as shielding against radiation. It works better than lead due to it high atomic weight and high number of electrons, it does a great job of absorbing beta particles as well as gamma and x-rays, and in a non-radioactive casing it stops alpha particles. These shields are used in the medical field, as well as tanks.

A number of other uses for depleted uranium (U-238) include it being used in conventional weapons as penetrators, like in tank shells and other munitions. The military also uses it in their Abrams tank as armor plating.

uranium marbles

What about other uses though? Before 1942 they made glass out of uranium which gave it a lovely yet creepy green glow (under black light). From this glass they made dishes and marbles (a picture of the marbles I bought is shown above). Radioactive fun for people of all ages. Although they were and still are radioactive, the glass used wasn’t extremely dangerous as it was in very nominal amounts, similar to the Geiger count reading you’d get from a bunch of bananas (20-40 CPM). For safety these were still stopped from manufacturing, but you can still find plates and marbles for sale on sites like eBay and in antique stores too.

Want another reason that uranium is useful for us? Uranium accounts for 40% of the radioactive heat within the earth. Which In turn helps create the magnetic field that protects our planet from cosmic rays.

I’m sure I’m leaving some uses out, such as the fact that it’s also used to date rocks that are more than a million years old, but you get the point. Uranium can actually be very useful in our lives so if you have an interest in it like I do, and are cautious, feel free to purchase your own uranium ore too.

uranium resources and mines

Think uranium is hard to get your hands on? Uranium is not as uncommon as some believe, in fact it’s 40 times more abundant than silver. It can be found just about anywhere, in rocks, soil, rivers, even the ocean. Uranium can even be extracted from sea water, 3.3 parts per billion. Of course the key is finding it in high enough contractions to make it economically feasible. Uranium mines operate in 20 countries around the world, and there are several locations here in the United States. At the time of this article, the market price for uranium was $25.50 per pound.

About The Author
Harry Carver
Harry Carver is TheHTS resident science nerd and super gamer. As well as researching and learning about physics and chemistry, he enjoys playing the mad scientist in his home lab so be sure to watch for his chemistry and science videos here and on our YouTube channel. He has a dislike for social media, but you can find him on Linkedin should you want to know more.