History of Uranium

Patrick McFadden
February 23, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Uranium Ore (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Uranium, seen in Fig. 1, has become a well-known item in today's news due to its connection with the making of nuclear bombs along with negative environmental impacts. It also has been extremely useful by providing energy to the world through nuclear reactors. This paper will discuss how uranium was discovered, how it is used today, and the implications of uranium in the future. [1]

Discovery of Uranium

Uranium was discovered in 1789 by the German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth. There were no major uses of uranium until 1934 when it was discovered that uranium could emit beta rays when inundated with neutrons. [2] Enrico Fermi was the man in charge of the team that had this discovery, and they were excited by the potential energy that could be produced from it. However, it was not until 1939 that Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered the nuclear fission capabilities of uranium. This discovery was then used to create uses of uranium such as nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. [1]

Uses of Uranium

Fig. 2: Little Boy. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A well-known use of uranium has been its involvement in the creation of nuclear weapons. The Manhattan Project resulted in the United States creating the world's first nuclear weapons. Little Boy, which was the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima seen in Fig. 2, was uranium based. The demand for uranium went up following the end of World War II as the Cold War began between the Soviet Union and the United States. Both countries began "stockpiling" nuclear weapons that led to the thought of Mutually Assured Destruction, which deterred attacks on the other country. Uranium quickly went from an unknown entity to a highly-sought out good. [1]

Uranium also has major implications on nuclear power plants, which have become an energy source for the world. The first nuclear reactors were created in the early 1940's, and today there are over 400 nuclear reactors in the world. The way that nuclear power plants work is it uses steam to move turbine generators to create energy. This steam is created when the uranium atoms undergo nuclear fission, which creates a lot of energy. Today, it is estimated that nuclear power supplies over 10% of the world's energy. [3] However, nuclear power plants have received some negative press due to nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl in 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011. [4]

Environmental Impacts

There have been worries about the negative environmental impact caused by uranium. There has been a lot of contamination from fallout from nuclear tests and nuclear accidents. If a human is exposed to uranium, the way that various functions of their body operate can be drastically affected. Short-term effects of radiation can lead to sickness, while long-term exposure can lead to bigger issues such as cancer. [4] Land that has been affected by nuclear fallout can be polluted for years afterwards. These negative effects of uranium exposure have led to measures in order to control the uses of uranium. [5]

Uranium in the Future

Uranium appears to be stable for the near future due to its prominence in nuclear reactors across the world. While its uses in nuclear weapons have been minimized due to disarmament treaties between countries, uranium will still be used in the future. The longevity and continued importance of uranium is strongly correlated to the future of nuclear reactors. If nuclear reactors are able to remain a long-term energy source, then uranium is here to stay. [3]

© Patrick McFadden. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] B. Goldschmidt, The Atomic Complex: A Worldwide Political History of Nuclear Energy (American Nuclear Society, 1982).

[2] N. Boh and J. A, Wheeler, "The Mechanism of Nuclear Fission," Phys. Rev. 56, 426 (1939).

[3] L. W. Davis, "Prospects for Nuclear Power," J. Econ. Perspect. 26, 49 (2012).

[4] G. Steinhauser, A. Brandl, and T. E. Johnson, "Comparison of the Chernobyl and Fukushima Nuclear Accidents: A Review of the Environmental Impacts," Sci. Total Environ. 470-471, 800 (2014); ibid. 487, 575 (2014).

[5] D. Williams, "Cancer after Nuclear Fallout: Lessons from the Chernobyl Accident," Nat. Rev. Cancer 2, 543 (2002).