In a press conference last night President Trump said this about uranium: “You know what uranium is, right? It’s this thing called nuclear weapons. And other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium. Including some bad things. But nobody talks about that.”
So let’s talk about that. Uranium is a radioactive silvery metal and it has the highest atomic weight of primordially occurring elements, those elements that are not created in a lab and were formed before the Solar System.
Uranium is a solid at room temperature and it is found in two main varieties: Uranium-238 and Uranium-235. These two isotopes have a different number of neutrons (so they have a different mass), which changes their physical properties. U-235 atoms require very little energy to split – known as fission – a reaction that liberates a huge amount of energy. This particular property has made uranium an incredible element.
Depending on where you fall in the atomic debate, uranium will either make you think about the horror of nuclear weapons and disasters, or the benefits of nuclear energy.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki are dark stains in the history of humanity. The effects they had on the victims and survivors is inhumane and nothing can justify their use. It’s unsurprising that Japan spearheads the effort for non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, having witnessed the horror first hand. A trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum should be compulsory to anyone holding public office.
Uranium is fortunately not just used for “bad things”, though. It is a great energy source, contributing to 20 percent of the US energy production and 11 percent of the world’s electricity. All of this without emitting CO2.
The production of electricity in nuclear power plants takes advantage of the same fission process that happens in atomic bombs, although, in reactors, the chain reaction is kept under control. Reactors use uranium fuel rods made of small, hard ceramic pellets to heat up the water to its boiling point, turning it to steam. This steam (although some have a double water tank system) is then used to spin a turbine, which is connected to a magnet, and by moving it induces an electrical current in a circuit.
It is undeniable that nuclear power plants have risks but in the reporting of them to the general public, these have often been greatly exaggerated. It has been estimated that for every person that has died due to nuclear power, 4,000 have died because of coal. And yet there’s hardly the same level of opposition to coal.
Coal is responsible for poor air quality conditions and for the high concentration of mercury in the ocean. If we want to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and grab the climate change bull by its horns, we need to use both nuclear and renewables.
So if you are in doubt about uranium, look it up, understand its risks and its potential, and – this one goes to you Mr President – don’t just bullshit your way through this important topic.