About: Uranium

About: Uranium

  • Uranium is composed mainly of two isotopes – U-235 and U-238.
    • Uranium-235 and U-238 are chemically identical, but differ in their physical properties, notably their mass.
    • The nucleus of the U-235 atom contains 92 protons and 143 neutrons, giving an atomic mass of 235 units.
    • The U-238 nucleus also has 92 protons but has 146 neutrons – three more than U-235 – and therefore has a mass of 238 units.
  • Natural uranium contains 99.3% U-238 isotope and 0.7% U-235 isotope.
  • U-238 isotope is not fissile i.e. it cannot start a nuclear reaction and sustain it.
  • On the other hand, the U-235 isotope is useful for nuclear power reactors, as well as for nuclear weapons.
    • A nuclear power plant requires uranium with 3-4% U-235, known as Low-enriched uranium (LEU) or reactor-grade uranium
    • A nuclear weapon needs uranium with 90% U-235, known as Highly-enriched uranium (HEU).

About: Uranium Enrichment:

  • As nuclear reactors and weapons need higher percent of fissile U-235 isotope, it is attained through Uranium Enrichment.
  • For this, Isotope separation is used, which is a physical process to concentrate (‘enrich’) one isotope relative to others.
  • The difference in mass between U-235 and U-238 allows the isotopes to be separated and makes it possible to increase or “enrich” the percentage of U-235.
  • Typical methods for enrichment include: gaseous diffusion, electromagnetic separation, aerodynamic processes, laser enrichment and centrifuge separation.

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