What is uranium?

Uranium is a metal whose atomic number is 92. It is a chemical element of the radioactive type, which has the U as its chemical symbol. The main characteristic of uranium is its weight: it is the element with the highest atomic weight among those that can be found in nature.

Discovered by German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth in 1789, uranium is found at very low levels in living things, water and rocks. Its origin is in supernovas (explosions of stars). Currently, there are several techniques that allow the extraction and concentration of uranium. It is important to note that the uses of uranium are varied. It can be used in the photography industry, as fuel for nuclear reactors, in the production of bombs, in the development of shields and in the manufacture of glass, to name a few possibilities.

The world’s top uranium producers include Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Namibia, Niger, Russia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The greater the use of nuclear energy, the greater the production of uranium required. Enriched uranium is termed the result of a process applied to natural uranium to obtain a specific isotope. This process, in turn, generates a by-product known as depleted uranium. Among the most common isotopes of uranium are uranium-238 (which has 146 neutrons) and uranium-235 (which has 143 neutrons). It is important to know the effects that this metal can have on our health, since human beings are constantly exposed to it, through food, water, contact with the soil and air. When we drink water or eat a plate of food, a small amount of natural uranium always enters our body, and the same happens when we breathe. Each food has a different concentration of uranium and, in some cases, the value is practically insignificant; to know this information it is necessary to consult the packaging or speak to a specialist. The greatest exposure to uranium occurs in people who live in areas close to mines or deposits of substances considered hazardous, who work in the phosphate industry and who eat food harvested from contaminated soils. A more specific case occurs in the use that some artists give to uranium glass, a product that has been banned for years.

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Although exposure to moderate levels of uranium, which occurs in some of the activities and situations mentioned above, has no worrisome effects on our health, excesses can cause serious diseases, among which liver disease and cancer stand out, especially with enriched uranium, since it is more radioactive than natural. Some scholars on the subject point out that, during an accident at a nuclear power plant, enriched uranium can affect the reproductive capacity of people who are nearby; on the other hand, this has not been proven with respect to natural uranium. Each soil type has different uranium concentrations and they are usually very low. It is through industrial activities that humans increase these values ​​and, in this way, the combination of compounds can last for many years without reaching the water table. Phosphate-rich soils have the highest concentrations of uranium, although this is not necessarily a negative, as they normally do not reach contamination levels. Uranio, on the other hand, is the name of an ancient locality in Caria (historical region that today forms part of Turkey) and of a television channel in Peru that ceased to be broadcast in 2007.

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