Nuclear Reactor Physics - Uranium Enrichment

Uranium Enrichment

While many fissionable isotopes exist in nature, the only usefully fissile isotope found in any quantity is 235U. About 0.7% of the uranium in most ores is the 235 isotope, and about 99.3% is the inert 238 isotope. For most uses as a nuclear fuel, uranium must be enriched - purified so that it contains a higher percentage of 235U. Because 238U absorbs fast neutrons, the critical mass needed to sustain a chain reaction increases as the 238U content increases, reaching infinity at 94% 238U (6% 235U). Concentrations lower than 6% 235U cannot go fast critical, though they are usable in a nuclear reactor with a neutron moderator. A nuclear weapon primary stage using uranium uses HEU enriched to ~90% 235U, though the secondary stage often uses lower enrichments. Nuclear reactors with water moderator can operate with only moderate enrichment of ~5% 235U. Nuclear reactors with heavy water moderation can operate with natural uranium, eliminating altogether the need for enrichment and preventing the fuel from being useful for nuclear weapons; the CANDU power reactors used in Canadian power plants are an example of this type.

Uranium enrichment is difficult because the chemical properties of 235U and 238U are identical, so physical processes such as gaseous diffusion, gas centrifuge or mass spectrometry must be used for isotopic separation based on small differences in mass. Because enrichment is the main technical hurdle to production of nuclear fuel and simple nuclear weapons, enrichment technology is politically sensitive.

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