Hello, in this guide I will tell you how to enrich uranium without leaving the house!
When uranium is mined, it consists of approximately 99.3% uranium-238 (U238), 0.7% uranium-235 (U235), and < 0.01% uranium-234 (U234). These are the different uranium isotopes. Isotopes of uranium contain 92 protons in the atom’s center or nucleus. (The number of protons in the nucleus is what makes the atoms “uranium.”) The U238 atoms contain 146 neutrons, the U235 atoms contain 143 neutrons, and the U234 atoms contain only 142 neutrons. The total number of protons plus neutrons gives the atomic mass of each isotope — that is 238, 235, or 234, respectively. On an atomic level, the size and weight of these isotopes are slightly different. This implies that with the right equipment and under the right conditions, the isotopes can be separated.
The nuclear fuel used in a nuclear reactor needs to have a higher concentration of the U235 isotope than that which exists in natural uranium ore. U235 when concentrated (or “enriched”) is fissionable in light-water reactors (the most common reactor design in the USA). During fission, the nucleus of the atom splits apart producing both heat and extra neutrons. Under controlled conditions, these extra neutrons can cause additional, nearby atoms to fission and a nuclear reaction can be sustained. The heat energy released, by the controlled nuclear reaction within the nuclear reactor, can be harnessed to produce electricity. Commercially, the U235 isotope is enriched to 3 to 5% (from the natural state of 0.7%) and is then further processed to create nuclear fuel.
At the conversion plant, uranium oxide is converted to the chemical form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) to be usable in an enrichment facility. UF6 is used for a couple reasons; 1) The element fluorine has only one naturally-occurring isotope which is a benefit during the enrichment process (e.g. while separating U235 from U238 the fluorine does not contribute to the weight difference), and 2) UF6 exists as a gas at a suitable operating temperature.
The two primary hazards at enrichment facilities include chemical hazards that could be created from a UF6 release and criticality hazards associated with enriched uranium.
There are several enrichment processes utilized worldwide. They are:
Gaseous diffusion was the first commercial process used in the United States to enrich uranium. These facilities utilized massive amounts of electricity and as the centrifuge technology matured the existing gaseous diffusion plants became obsolete. Worldwide they have all been replaced by second-generation technology, which requires far less electric power to produce equivalent amounts of separated uranium. These facilities are now considered obsolete.
Process: In a gaseous diffusion enrichment plant, uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas was fed into the plant’s pipelines where it was pumped through special filters called barriers or porous membranes. The holes in the barriers were so small that there was barely enough room for the UF6 gas molecules to pass through as shown in this diagram. The isotope enrichment occurred because the lighter UF6 gas molecules (with the U234 and U235 atoms) diffused faster through the barriers than the heavier UF6 gas molecules containing U238. One barrier wasn’t enough though. It took many hundreds of barriers, one after the other, before the UF6 gas contained enough U235 to be used in nuclear fuel. At the end of the process, the enriched UF6 gas was withdrawn from the pipelines and condensed back into a liquid that was then poured into containers. The UF6 was allowed to cool and solidify before it was transported to fuel fabrication facilities. The diagram to the right illustrates the gaseous diffusion enrichment process.
Gas centrifuge enrichment is the current process by which commercial enrichment is being performed in the United States. UF6 gas is placed in a gas centrifuge cylinder and rotated at a high speed. This rotation creates a strong centrifugal force so that the heavier gas molecules (UF6 containing U238 atoms) move towards the outside of the cylinder. The lighter gas molecules (containing U235) collect closer to the center. The stream that is slightly enriched in U235 is withdrawn and fed into the next centrifuge; the next higher stage. The slightly depleted stream (with a lower concentration of U235) is recycled back into the next lower stage.
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.
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