Why Uranium Enrichment is Important and how it is done?

Why Uranium Enrichment is Important and how it is done?

Uranium Enrichment is an exhaustive process that requires extraordinary funds and efficiency.

Uranium is the key ingredient for building a nuclear weapon. Having said that, the perception that any kind of Uranium can be used for this purpose is not true. Only a specific type of the element can be used in nuclear bombs and reactors. It is available in two different isotopic forms. Naturally, more than 99% of Uranium is available in the 238U form while 235U is used for making weapons. Isotope Separation, which is a hectic process, is used to extract that and that is the reason why it is called the Enriched Uranium. The techniques used for this purpose are decades old so there is no difficulty in figuring out how to do the separation. The implementation part of the job is what requires all your skills.

The factor that contributes to the separation of uranium atoms is their weight. It is quite understandable that the weight of a 238U atom will be more than the weight of a 235U atom. Jeff Binder, the Isotope Production Manager at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, explained the mechanism that they adopt in order to extract the required commodity. The process begins with a chemical reaction which turns uranium into a gas. This gas is then passed through huge centrifuge tubes that spin rapidly on their axis. This motion pushes all the heavier molecules towards the center while light molecules of Uranium-235 are sucked out from the edges.

A very small amount of Uranium-238 is removed in this step so it is repeated again and again by putting a lot of these centrifuge tubes in series. Every tube pulls out a little bit of Uranium-238 and passes the gas to its neighbor. After millions of spins, we reach the end where we get a small quantity of Uranium-235 gas molecules. The statement of Jerry Klein, a Business Manager of the Isotope Production Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, sums up the scale of these plants as she said:

You know the end of Indiana Jones [Raiders of the Lost Ark] where they are storing things and you can’t see the end of it? That’s what these buildings look like. Just row after row of centrifuges. Just hundreds and thousands of them.”  

Once engineers get their hands on the gaseous Uranium, they convert it back into the metallic form so that it can be used inside reactors or bombs.

The designing of these tubes is critical as efficiency is necessary for this procedure. The shape of these tubes must be kept perfectly cylindrical to maximize the efficiency and it is not an easy task by any means of the imagination. These centrifuge tubes are prepared from special types of steel or composites in order to bear insane amounts of pressure due to high-speed rotations. The machinery which creates these tubes is equally difficult and expensive to produce. These are the reasons why only a few nations have managed to make nuclear weapons.

The list of countries that have an operational enrichment facility includes the United States of America, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, China, Pakistan, France, North Korea, Argentina, Brazil, India, the Netherlands, and Iran. In addition to their own facility, Iran has an investment interest in the French Eurodif enrichment plant and gets 10% of the enriched uranium. Spain, Belgium, and Italy have also invested in this plant. According to some claims, Israel has a Uranium enrichment program but no official declaration is available in this regard. South Africa had an enrichment program in the past but was discontinued. The Libyan program never managed to begin operation as it was closed even before getting started.

In order to get some statistical proof of how difficult it is to extract enriched Uranium, we can consider the atomic bomb America dropped at the Hiroshima. According to ‘The Making of the Atomic Bomb’, 137 pounds of Uranium-235 was required. In quest of that, 4 tons of Uranium ore was processed in the world’s largest building. 20,000 people manufactured the building while 12,000 technicians were required to run the facility. The accumulative cost of the project was approximately $500 million which is equivalent to $7.2 billion in today’s world.

Computer Scientist by qualification who loves to read, write, eat, and travel

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