World production fell very slightly in 2003 to 35,844 t of uranium from a figure of 36,063 t U in 2002. There were production hiccups in both Australia and Canada during 2003: in Australia, there were production problems at the Olympic Dam mine. In Canada, there has been the continuation of the gradual switch from the older mines to the new but also a loss of several months’ production at McArthur River during 2003.Uranium (U) is the only commercially produced radioactive mineral and is used for the generation of electricity as well as production of radioisotopes for medical uses. A total of 26 countries generate more than 25% of their electricity using nuclear power plants. Radioisotopes are used for the diagnosis and treatment of certain illnesses; examination of welds and the study of the rate of wear of metals; preservation of foods; and production of high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties of food crops.
Uranium has uses in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, but this role has diminished considerably (thankfully). Uranium occurs in its natural form as three isotopes (U238, U235 and U234) with U235 being used for the generation of electricity using nuclear fission. The main uranium bearing minerals that are currently economically exploited are uraninite (UO2), pitchblende (a mixed oxide, usually U3O8), brannerite (a complex oxide of uranium, rare earths, iron and titanium) and coffinite (uranium silicate). Canada, Australia and Niger are the world’s major producers of uranium.
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