Uranium is a silvery-white metallic chemical element in the actinide series of the periodic table, with symbol U and atomic number 92. A uranium atom has 92 protons and 92 electrons, of which 6 are valence electrons. Uranium is weakly radioactive because all its isotopes are unstable. The most common isotopes of uranium are uranium-238 (which has 146 neutrons) and uranium-235 (which has 143 neutrons). Uranium has the second highest atomic weight of the primordially occurring elements, lighter only than plutonium. Its density is about 70% higher than that of lead, but not as dense as gold or tungsten. It occurs naturally in low concentrations of a few parts per million in soil, rock and water, and is commercially extracted from uranium-bearing minerals such as uraninite.
In nature, uranium is found as uranium-238 (99.2739–99.2752%), uranium-235 (0.7198–0.7202%), and a very small amount of uranium-234 (0.0050–0.0059%). 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.
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 fissionable by fast neutrons, and is fertile, meaning it can be transmuted to fissile plutonium-239 in a nuclear reactor. Another fissile isotope, uranium-233, can be produced from natural thorium and is also important in nuclear technology. While uranium-238 has a small probability for spontaneous fission or even induced fission with fast neutrons, uranium-235 and to a lesser degree uranium-233 have a much higher fission cross-section for slow neutrons. In sufficient concentration, these isotopes maintain a sustained nuclear chain reaction. This generates the heat in nuclear power reactors, and produces the fissile material for nuclear weapons. Depleted uranium (238U) 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 discovered 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 uranium metal and uranium-derived plutonium-239. 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. See Nuclear proliferation.