Yellowcake explained

Yellowcake FAQ

What is it?

Yellowcake is the refined form of uranium ore, a type of rock mined from the Earth's crust.

How is it made?

After the ore has been mined, it is crushed and soaked in an acid solution to leach out the radioactive element, uranium. Once this pulverized ore is dried and filtered, what's left is a coarse powder that is often yellow but can also be other colours depending on the remaining impurities. At this stage, it is called yellowcake and contains 80 per cent to 90 per cent pure uranium. It is then packaged in steel drums.

What is it used for?

When further processed, yellowcake becomes enriched uranium and can be used in the manufacture of nuclear fuel. The vast majority of that fuel is used in nuclear power plants to produce electricity. It can also be used in nuclear weapons.

Is it dangerous?

Scientists say it doesn't pose a high risk to human and animal health if stored and handled properly. However, it is a radioactive substance, which means merely standing close to yellowcake without protective clothing can cause organ damage. The level of damage, which includes cancer, depends on how much pure uranium there is in the yellowcake and how long you've been exposed to it. Ingesting or inhaling the dust of yellowcake is the most serious form of exposure. 

Where is it mined?

Uranium ore is mined in various parts of the world, including Canada, Russia, South Africa and Brazil. Canada is responsible for about a third of the world's production of 50,000 tonnes, with the bulk of that coming from Saskatchewan. Saskatoon-based Cameco is the world's largest uranium producer.

How much is it worth?

The most recent price available for yellowcake (June 30, 2008) was $59 a pound, down from a high of about $130 per pound in 2007.