If one were to ask an average person the question, “What do you know about uranium?”, their response would probably be, “It is a mineral used for fuel in nuclear power plants.” While this statement is technically true, the role of uranium in global power generation is somewhat more complex than that. So, what precisely is uranium? And beyond that, where does it come from?
To begin with, uranium is a mildly radioactive, metallic chemical element. It is represented by the symbol “U on the periodic table and listed as atomic number 92. Silver-white or silver-grey in color, uranium is what is known as a primordial element, meaning that it has been present since the Earth was formed nearly 4.5 billion years ago. The mineral is widely distributed in the planet’s solid crust, as well as in its oceans and rivers. Contrary to popular belief, uranium is not exceptionally rare. In fact, it is approximately as common as tin.
The unique properties of one of its forms, known as uranium-235, makes it the only naturally occurring fissile material, and as such, highly prized in the realm of nuclear energy generation. Some of the countries that most heavily depend on nuclear power to meet their domestic electricity needs are the United States, China, France, Russia, South Korea, Japan, Canada, India, Sweden, Ukraine, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
In recent years, many of these nations have declared their intent to substantially reduce consumption of non-renewable fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas. But because other so-called “green” methods of producing renewable energy, such as solar, wind, and geothermal, have not yet demonstrated the ability to generate the raw amounts of power needed to fuel entire national infrastructures, the reliance these nations (and to a lesser extent, some underdeveloped and developing nations) have on nuclear power is projected to rise steadily.
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