Uranium is a radioactive metal found beneath the Earth’s surface. Radium and radon are other radioactive elements also found in uranium ore. When they are in their natural state (under the ground) these elements are not radioactive. It is only when they are separated from one another during milling processes that their radioactive energy is released. While not all radioactive substances are dangerous, some can affect cell tissues and therefore pose a threat to living things that are exposed to them.
From its original ore state, uranium is crushed and ground (a process known as ‘milling’) and then dissolved in sulphuric acid (a process known as ‘leaching’) in a solvent extraction plant. After these processes are complete, the pure uranium is separated from the other substances found in the ore and becomes what is known as ‘uranium oxide’ or ‘yellow cake’. The remaining waste materials are referred to as ‘tailings’ and must be placed into special dams or pits because they can also be radioactive.
Once extracted, uranium is used primarily as a source of nuclear energy in nuclear power plants and for some medical purposes (such as X-ray technology). When combined with plutonium, uranium is an essential component in the production of nuclear weapons (or atomic bombs).
Australia is one of the world’s largest producers of uranium and holds an estimated 40 per cent of global uranium ore reserves. Energy Resources Australia Ltd. (ERA), the mining company that holds the leases for the Ranger and Jabiluka mine sites, currently provides eleven per cent of the global supply of uranium oxide. This is primarily exported to countries in Asia, Europe and North America.