How is Uranium Enriched?


Authored by Kennedy Allen in Science
Published on 09-29-2009

Uranium is a naturally occurring component in rocks and soil. It has a variety of uses depending on its form and alteration. Enriched uranium is used mainly for nuclear energy, be it to power cities or nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

Uranium is enriched to transform the uranium atoms from their natural “heavy” atom state into middle and light weight atom states. This is most commonly done through a process called gaseous diffusion. Gaseous diffusion to enrich uranium atoms brings the uranium isotopes up from their typical natural state of .7 percent of uranium mass to about 5 percent total uranium mass.

The process of gaseous diffusion to enrich uranium starts by taking solid uranium hexafluoride and heating it in a specialized pressurized container until it becomes a liquid. Gases from the melting of solid uranium start to fill up the container and are then fed through to the pipes of the processing plant. The gases are then pumped through special filters called barriers which have holes so small the gas can barely pass through them. There is not just one barrier, there are hundreds. This barrier is what makes the uranium enriched by only letting the smallest of the uranium atoms through, therefore resulting in condensed and concentrated uranium atoms.

At the end of the process, the enriched uranium is taken out of the pipelines and reverted back to a liquid state which is then poured into containers. After the cooling of the liquid enriched uranium, it solidifies. This is necessary for its safe transportation to power plants.

Depending on the enrichment of uranium it can be used for different things. The larger the mass of total uranium, the more powerful it can be. For example, nuclear weapons of mass destruction are powered by the much stronger form of enriched uranium.

The process of enriching uranium is extremely hazardous. If a uranium gas leak occurs, the outcome may be extremely deadly not only for the people working at the plant, but for miles around. Uranium enrichment facilities that are mishandled can create a nuclear chain reaction.

Uranium is a very cancerous substance that can cause radiation. In other forms, uranium is used for the irradiation of vegetables to keep them from spoiling. Not only does the process of uranium enrichment cause potentially deadly circumstances, uranium in all forms must be handled with care. Uranium can leech into the ground causing severe pollution of groundwater. Also, the individuals mining for uranium may suffer from inhaling the powder substances produced by the milling phase of uranium extraction. This is a common cause for terminal lung cancer.

There are currently other forms of enriching uranium, and the search continues for safer forms of extraction to reduce human casualties as a result of a higher demand. Increases in world population size as well as the interest in countries wanting nuclear weapons for protection and intimidation make the uranium enrichment business a rather large one that does not seem like it might seize operations at any time.


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