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Uranium (pronounced /jʊˈreɪniəm/) is a silvery-white metallic chemical element in the actinide series of the periodic table that has the symbol U and atomic number 92. Besides its 92 protons, a uranium nucleus can have between 141 and 146 neutrons, with 146 (U-238) and 143 (U-235) in its most common isotopes. The number of electrons in a uranium atom is 92, 6 of them valence electrons. Uranium has the highest atomic weight of the naturally occurring elements. Uranium is approximately 70% denser than lead, but not as dense as gold or tungsten. It is weakly radioactive. It occurs naturally in low concentrations (a few parts per million) in soil, rock and water, and is commercially extracted from uranium-bearing minerals such as uraninite (see uranium mining).
In nature, uranium atoms exist as uranium-238 (99.284%), uranium-235 (0.711%), and a very small amount of uranium-234 (0.0058%). Uranium decays slowly by emitting an alpha particle. The half-life of uranium-238 is about 4.47 billion years and that of uranium-235 is 704 million years, making them useful in dating the age of the Earth (see uranium-thorium dating, uranium-lead dating and uranium-uranium dating).
Many contemporary uses of uranium exploit its unique nuclear properties. Uranium-235 has the distinction of being the only naturally occurring fissile isotope. Uranium-238 is both fissionable by fast neutrons, and fertile (capable of being transmuted to fissile plutonium-239 in a nuclear reactor). An artificial fissile isotope, uranium-233, can be produced from natural thorium and is also important in nuclear technology. While uranium-238 has a small probability to fission spontaneously or when bombarded with fast neutrons, the much higher probability of uranium-235 and to a lesser degree uranium-233 to fission when bombarded with slow neutrons generates the heat in nuclear reactors used as a source of power, and provides the fissile material for nuclear weapons. Both uses rely on the ability of uranium to produce a sustained nuclear chain reaction. Depleted uranium (uranium-238) is used in kinetic energy penetrators and armor plating.
Uranium is used as a colorant in uranium glass, producing orange-red to lemon yellow hues. It was also used for tinting and shading in early photography. The 1789 discovery of uranium in the mineral pitchblende is credited to Martin Heinrich Klaproth, who named the new element after the planet Uranus. Eugène-Melchior Péligot was the first person to isolate the metal, and its radioactive properties were uncovered in 1896 by Antoine Becquerel. Research by Enrico Fermi and others starting in 1934 led to its use as a fuel in the nuclear power industry and in Little Boy, the first nuclear weapon used in war. An ensuing arms race during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union produced tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that used enriched uranium and uranium-derived plutonium. The security of those weapons and their fissile material following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 is an ongoing concern for public health and safety.