History of Uranium

Martin Heinrich Klaproth
Martin Heinrich Klaproth.

Uranium was discovered in 1789 by German chemist Martin Klaproth while analysing mineral samples from the Joachimsal silver mines in the present day Czech Republic. Apart from its value to chemists, the only significant use for uranium throughout the 1800s was to colour glass and ceramics. Uranium compounds were used to give vases and decorative glassware a yellow-green colour. Ceramic glazes ranging from orange to bright red were used on items as varied as household crockery and architectural decorations.

Becquerel plate
Antoine Henri Becquerel discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity by exposing a photographic plate to uranium (1896).

Uranium’s radioactive properties were not noticed until 1896. French scientist Henri Becquerel did not realize the full significance of his discovery, but one of his students, Marie Curie, correctly interpreted his results and chose the name radioactivity for the new phenomenon. Working with her husband Pierre, Marie Curie went on to discover another new element, radium, in 1898. The Curies had to use tonnes of uranium ore to obtain even a fraction of a gram of this new element. Radium was felt to be a miracle cure for cancer and commanded prices as high as $75,000 per ounce until the bottom fell out of the market in the late 1930s.

Demand for radium led to a rapid expansion in the mining of uranium ore in the early 1900s. New discoveries were made in the United States, Australia, Portugal, the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and Canada.

After the Curies’ first work with radioactive materials, many scientists around the world began to study uranium, trying to discover its atomic secrets. In 1939, the first proven nuclear fission was performed by Otto Hahn in Germany. By this time the world was on the edge of war and military secrecy quickly surrounded the work of atomic scientists. A team led by Enrico Fermi built the first nuclear reactor (known as an “atomic pile”) in great secrecy at the University of Chicago.

Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi (bottom left) and the rest of the team that initiated the first artificial nuclear chain reaction (1942).

This pile achieved the first controlled nuclear reaction in 1942. The U.S., fearful that Germany would be the first to develop an atomic weapon, assembled a team of leading nuclear scientists from several countries. Their work, known as the Manhattan Project, resulted in the first nuclear explosion at the Trinity test site in New Mexico in July 1945. The world became aware of the enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons a month later when the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed.

After the war ended, attention quickly turned to developing the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The first practical use of nuclear power was in 1951, when an experimental nuclear reactor at a U.S. research centre in Idaho Falls lit four ordinary light bulbs. In 1957, the first full-scale U.S. nuclear power plant went into service at Shippingport, Pennsylvania. It had a generating capacity of 60 megawatts, a small amount by today’s standards.

Meanwhile several other countries were also building reactors. In 1954, the world’s first commercial reactor produced power in Obninsk, Russia. Britain’s Calder Hall started in 1956 and was the world’s first industrial-scale nuclear power station. The French nuclear program had a slower start after the war, but generated its first electricity with a reactor at Marcoule in 1956. Canada and Sweden also succeeded in independently generating nuclear electricity, in 1962 and 1964 respectively.

The nuclear industries of these countries grew rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s. The first export orders for nuclear power reactors, awarded by Italy in 1958, were followed by the spread of nuclear electricity generation to many other countries, including the former West Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Finland and Japan. The Soviet Union exported reactors to Eastern European countries, including East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary. Many of these countries developed their own nuclear expertise, leading to the development of today’s international nuclear industry. The world’s major source of uranium until the early 1950s was in the Belgian Congo.

Later, to meet the requirements of the fast-growing nuclear industry, uranium mining was expanded in the U.S., Canada, France, Australia, and Africa. Today, Canada was the second-largest producer of uranium from mines (about 20% of world supply), after Kazakhstan (27%).


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