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Nuclear Materials

Nuclear Materials

Nuclear material consists of materials used in nuclear technology systems, such as nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. Most commonly this refers to special nuclear material (SNM) as defined in the United States Atomic Energy Act. These materials can potentially be used for nuclear weapons.

"Special nuclear material"

"Special nuclear material" (SNM) is defined by Title I of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 as plutonium, uranium-233, or uranium enriched in the isotopes uranium-233 or uranium-235. The definition includes any other material that the Commission determines to be special nuclear material, but does not include source material. Uranium-233 and plutonium do not occur naturally but can be formed in nuclear reactors and extracted from the highly radioactive spent fuel by chemical separation. Uranium-233 can be produced in special reactors that use thorium as fuel. Only small quantities of uranium-233 have ever been made in the United States. Plutonium is produced in reactors using U-238/U-235 fuel.

Nuclear Fuel

Nuclear Fuel is any material that can be consumed to derive nuclear energy, by analogy to chemical fuel that is burned to derive energy. By far the most common type of nuclear fuel is heavy fissile elements that can be made to undergo nuclear fission chain reactions in a nuclear fission reactor; nuclear fuel can refer to the material or to physical objects (for example fuel bundles composed of fuel rods) composed of the fuel material, perhaps mixed with structural, neutron moderating, or neutron reflecting materials. The most common fissile nuclear fuels are 235U and 239Pu, and the actions of mining, refining, purifying, using, and ultimately disposing of these elements together make up the nuclear fuel cycle, which is important for its relevance to nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons.

Not all nuclear fuels are used in fission chain reactions. For example, 238Pu and some other elements are used to produce small amounts of nuclear power by radioactive decay in radio thermal generators, and other atomic batteries. Light isotopes such as 3H (tritium) are used as fuel for nuclear fusion. If one looks at binding energy of specific isotopes, there can be an energy gain from fusing most elements with a lower atomic number than iron, and fissioning isotopes with a higher atomic number than iron.

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle

The nuclear fuel cycle is the series of industrial processes that involve the production of electricity from uranium in nuclear power reactors.

Uranium is a relatively common element that is found throughout the world. It is mined in a number of countries and must be processed before it can be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor.

Using the heat generated in a nuclear reactor to produce steam and drive a turbine connected to a generator creates electricity.

Fuel removed from a reactor, after it has reached the end of its useful life, can be reprocessed to produce new fuel.

The various activities associated with the production of electricity from nuclear reactions are referred to collectively as the nuclear fuel cycle. The nuclear fuel cycle starts with the mining of uranium and ends with the disposal of nuclear waste. With the reprocessing of used fuel as an option for nuclear energy, the stages form a true cycle.

Fertile material

Fertile material is a term used to describe nuclides which generally themselves do not undergo induced fission (fissionable by thermal neutrons) but from which fissile material is generated by neutron absorption and subsequent nuclei conversions. Fertile materials that occur naturally which can be converted into a fissile material by irradiation in a reactor include:

  • Thorium-232 which converts into uranium-233

  • Uranium-234 which converts into uranium-235

  • Uranium-238 which converts into plutonium-239


Uranium is a slightly radioactive metal that occurs throughout the earth's crust. It is about 500 times more abundant than gold and about as common as tin. It is present in most rocks and soils as well as in many rivers and in seawater. It is, for example, found in concentrations of about four parts per million (ppm) in granite, which makes up 60% of the earth's crust. In fertilisers, uranium concentration can be as high as 400 ppm (0.04%), and some coal deposits contain uranium at concentrations greater than 100 ppm (0.01%). Most of the radioactivity associated with uranium in nature is in fact due to other minerals derived from it by radioactive decay processes, and which are left behind in mining and milling.

There are a number of areas around the world where the concentration of uranium in the ground is sufficiently high that extraction of it for use as nuclear fuel is economically feasible. Such concentrations are called ore.

Enriched uranium

Enriched uranium is a kind of uranium in which the percent composition of uranium-235 has been increased through the process of isotope separation. Natural uranium is 99.284% 238U isotope, with 235U only constituting about 0.711 % of its weight. However, 235U is the only isotope existing in nature (in any appreciable amount) that is fissionable by thermal neutrons.

Enriched uranium is a critical component for both civil nuclear power generation and military nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency attempts to monitor and control enriched uranium supplies and processes in its efforts to ensure nuclear power generation safety and curb nuclear weapons proliferation.

Grades of Enriched uranium:

  • Slightly enriched uranium (SEU)

Slightly enriched uranium (SEU) has a 235U concentration of 0.9% to 2%.This new grade is being used to replace natural uranium (NU) fuel in some heavy water reactors like the CANDU. Costs are lowered because less uranium and fewer bundles are needed to fuel the reactor. This in turn reduces the quantity of used fuel and its subsequent waste management costs.

  • Low-enriched uranium (LEU)

Low-enriched uranium (LEU) has a lower than 20% concentration of 235U. For use in commercial light water reactors (LWR), the most prevalent power reactors in the world, uranium is enriched to 3 to 5 % 235U. Fresh LEU used in research reactors is usually enriched 12% to 19.75% U-235, the latter concentration being used to replace HEU fuels when converting to LEU.

  • Highly enriched uranium (HEU)

Highly enriched uranium (HEU) has a greater than 20% concentration of 235U or 233U. The fissile uranium in nuclear weapons usually contains 85% or more of 235U known as weapon(s)-grade, though for a crude, inefficient weapon 20% is sufficient (called weapon(s)-usable); some argue that even less is sufficient, but then the critical mass required rapidly increases. However, judicious use of implosion and neutron reflectors can enable construction of a weapon from a quantity of uranium below the usual critical mass for its level of enrichment, though this would likely only be possible in a country which already had extensive experience in developing nuclear weapons.

Depleted uranium

The uranium remaining after removal of the enriched fraction contains about 99.8% 238U, 0.2% 235U and 0.001% 234U by mass; this is referred to as depleted uranium or DU. The main difference between DU and natural uranium is that the former contains at least three times less 235U than the latter. DU, consequently, is weakly radioactive and a radiation dose from it would be about 60% of that from purified natural uranium with the same mass. The behaviour of DU in the body is identical to that of natural uranium. Spent uranium fuel from nuclear reactors is sometimes reprocessed in plants for natural uranium enrichment. Some reactor-created radioisotopes can consequently contaminate the reprocessing equipment and the DU. Under these conditions another uranium isotope, 236U, may be present in the DU together with very small amounts of the transuranic elements plutonium, americium and neptunium and the fission product technetium-99. However, the additional radiation dose following intake of DU into the human body from these isotopes would be less than 1%.

Uranium Mining

Both excavation and in situ techniques are used to recover uranium ore. Excavation may be underground and open pit mining.

In general, open pit mining is used where deposits are close to the surface and underground mining is used for deep deposits, typically greater than 120 m deep. Open pit mines require large holes on the surface, larger than the size of the ore deposit, since the walls of the pit must be sloped to prevent collapse. As a result, the quantity of material that must be removed in order to access the ore may be large. Underground mines have relatively small surface disturbance and the quantity of material that must be removed to access the ore is considerably less than in the case of an open pit mine.

An increasing proportion of the world's uranium now comes from in situ leaching (ISL), where oxygenated groundwater is circulated through a very porous ore body to dissolve the uranium and bring it to the surface. ISL may be with slightly acid or with alkaline solutions to keep the uranium in solution. The uranium is then recovered from the solution as in a conventional mill.

The decision as to which mining method to use for a particular deposit is governed by the nature of the ore body, safety and economic considerations.

In the case of underground uranium mines, special precautions, consisting primarily of increased ventilation, are required to protect against airborne radiation exposure.

Uranium Milling

Milling, which is generally carried out close to a uranium mine, extracts the uranium from the ore. Most mining facilities include a mill, although where mines are close together, one mill may process the ore from several mines. Milling produces a uranium oxide concentrate which is shipped from the mill. It is sometimes referred to as 'yellowcake' and generally contains more than 80% uranium. The original ore may contains as little as 0.1% uranium.

In a mill, uranium is extracted from the crushed and ground-up ore by leaching, in which either a strong acid or a strong alkaline solution is used to dissolve the uranium. The uranium is then removed from this solution and precipitated. After drying and usually heating it is packed in 200-litre drums as a concentrate.

The remainder of the ore, containing most of the radioactivity and nearly all the rock material, becomes tailings, which are emplaced in engineered facilities near the mine (often in mined out pit). Tailings contain long-lived radioactive materials in low concentrations and toxic materials such as heavy metals; however, the total quantity of radioactive elements is less than in the original ore, and their collective radioactivity will be much shorter-lived. These materials need to be isolated from the environment.


The product of a uranium mill is not directly usable as a fuel for a nuclear reactor. Additional processing, generally referred to as enrichment, is required for most kinds of reactors. This process requires uranium to be in gaseous form and the way this is achieved is to convert it to uranium hexafluoride, which is a gas at relatively low temperatures.

At a conversion facility, uranium is first refined to uranium dioxide, which can be used as the fuel for those types of reactors that do not require enriched uranium. Most is then converted into uranium hexafluoride, ready for the enrichment plant. It is shipped in strong metal containers. The main hazard of this stage of the fuel cycle is the use of hydrogen fluoride.

Fuel Fabrication

Reactor fuel is generally in the form of ceramic pellets. These are formed from pressed uranium oxide that is sintered (baked) at a high temperature (over 1400 C). The pellets are then encased in metal tubes to form fuel rods, which are arranged into a fuel assembly ready for introduction into a reactor. The dimensions of the fuel pellets and other components of the fuel assembly are precisely controlled to ensure consistency in the characteristics of fuel bundles.

In a fuel fabrication plant great care is taken with the size and shape of processing vessels to avoid criticality (a limited chain reaction releasing radiation). With low-enriched fuel criticality is most unlikely, but in plants handling special fuels for research reactors this is a vital consideration.

Power Generation

Inside a nuclear reactor the nuclei of U-235 atoms split (fission) and, in the process, release energy. This energy is used to heat water and turn it into steam. The steam is used to drive a turbine connected to a generator which produces electricity. Some of the U-238 in the fuel is turned into plutonium in the reactor core. The main plutonium isotope is also fissile and it yields about one third of the energy in a typical nuclear reactor. The fissioning of uranium is used as a source of heat in a nuclear power station in the same way that the burning of coal, gas or oil is used as a source of heat in a fossil fuel power plant.

Used Fuel

With time, the concentration of fission fragments and heavy elements formed in the same way as plutonium in a fuel bundle will increase to the point where it is no longer practical to continue to use the fuel. So after 12-24 months the 'spent fuel' is removed from the reactor. The amount of energy that is produced from a fuel bundle varies with the type of reactor and the policy of the reactor operator.

Typically, more than 45 million kilowatt-hours of electricity are produced from one tonne of natural uranium. The production of this amount of electrical power from fossil fuels would require the burning of over 20,000 tonnes of black coal or 30 million cubic metres of gas.

Used Fuel Storage

When removed from a reactor, a fuel bundle will be emitting both radiation, principally from the fission fragments, and heat. Used fuel is unloaded into a storage pond immediately adjacent to the reactor to allow the radiation levels to decrease. In the ponds the water shields the radiation and absorbs the heat. Used fuel is held in such pools for several months to several years.

Depending on policies in particular countries, some used fuel may be transferred to central storage facilities. Ultimately, used fuel must either be reprocessed or prepared for permanent disposal.


Used fuel is about 95% U-238 but it also contains about 1% U-235 that has not fissioned, about 1% plutonium and 3% fission products, which are highly radioactive, with other transuranic elements formed in the reactor. In a reprocessing facility the used fuel is separated into its three components: uranium, plutonium and waste, containing fission products.

Reprocessing enables recycling of the uranium and plutonium into fresh fuel, and produces a significantly reduced amount of waste (compared with treating all used fuel as waste).

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