Atoms in a radioactive substance decay in a random fashion but at a characteristic rate. The length of time this takes, the number of steps required and the kinds of radiation released at each step are well known.
The half-life is the time taken for half of the atoms of a radioactive substance to decay. Half-lives can range from less than a millionth of a second to millions of years depending on the element concerned. After one half-life the level of radioactivity of a substance is halved, after two half-lives it is reduced to one quarter, after three half-lives to one-eighth and so on.
All uranium atoms are mildly radioactive. The following figure for uranium-238 shows the series of different radioisotopes it becomes as it decays, the type of radiation given off at each step and the 'half-life' of each step on the way to stable, non-radioactive lead-206. The shorter-lived each kind of radioisotope, the more radiation it emits per unit mass. Much of the natural radioactivity in rocks and soil comes from this decay chain.