We’re constantly hearing about nuclear enrichment in the news, but what does it mean and when should we be concerned?
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Nuclear programs in countries like North Korea and Iran are constantly in the news with reports that they’re enriching uranium.
But what exactly does it mean to enrich uranium? And at what point should we be worried?
For nuclear power or weapons, the isotope of uranium we’re after is U-235, which has 92 protons and 143 neutrons. But the majority of uranium we pull out of mines is the isotope Uranium 238, which has 3 more neutrons and behaves differently.
Only about 0.7% of Uranium is the kind we want, U-235. Uranium 235 is fissile, meaning all you need to do to split it is hit it with a low energy thermal neutron. The neutron doesn’t smash the nucleus apart, but instead is absorbed by the atom, making it unstable. When the U-235 splits, it releases energy and more neutrons that can then repeat the reaction with other U-235 atoms.
While you can still split U-238 atoms, you need high energy neutrons to do it, which is less efficient. So when it comes to producing energy, the higher concentration of U-235 relative to U-238, the easier it will be. Nuclear power plants that aim to produce energy steadily over a long period of time use pellets that are between about 3% to 5% U-235, while nuclear bombs that want to release a lot of energy all at once have concentrations as high as 90% U-235.
The challenge is: How do you take naturally occurring Uranium that’s 0.7% U-235 and up its concentration to those lofty numbers.
That’s where enrichment comes in.
In this Elements, find out more about what it means to enrich uranium, the steps it takes to get there, and what enriched uranium could mean for the future of nuclear power as a greener energy alternative.
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Nuclear Power Plants Are Floating on Water…Wait What? –
“A gas centrifuge facility contains long lines of many rotating cylinders. These cylinders are connected in both series and parallel formations. Centrifuge machines are interconnected to form trains and cascades. At the final withdrawal point, the UF6 is enriched to the desired amount.”
A beginner’s guide to enriching uranium
“The World Nuclear Association says that uranium mines are operational in some 20 countries, though about half of global production comes from just 10 mines in six countries: Canada, Australia, Niger, Kazakhstan, Russia and Namibia.”
What Is Enriched Uranium?
“The first people to figure out how to do this were the scientists of the Manhattan Project during World War II. They came up with four methods to separate the U-235 from uranium ore: gaseous diffusion, electromagnetic separation, liquid thermal diffusion and centrifugation, though at the time they deemed centrifugation not practical for large-scale enrichment.”
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