MadSci Network: Chemistry

Re: What Is depleted Uranium?

Date: Thu Mar 2 09:14:14 2000
Posted By: Ron Morgan, Staff, Health Physics/Radiological Engineering, Los Alamos National Laboratory
Area of science: Chemistry
ID: 951931115.Ch

Many elements occur naturally as a mixture of isotopes.  There are three 
natural isotopes of oxygen, for instance, because while most atoms of 
oxygen have eight neutrons in the nucleus, a few (0.04%) have nine 
neutrons and a few (0.2%) have ten neutrons in the nucleus.  Oxygen with 
eight neutrons and eight protons in the nucleus is called "oxygen 16," 
because 16 is the total number of nucleons and thus weighs 16 atomic mass 
units.  Uranium is a metal that occurs naturally as a component of most 
rocks and soils (usually, it is a very small component).  Uranium, like 
oxygen, occurs naturally as a mixture of three isotopes.  Most natural 
uranium (97.27%) is uranium 238, which has 146 neutrons in the nucleus. 
Uranium 235 (143 neutrons) is only about 0.72% of natural uranium, and 
uranium 234 (142 neutrons) makes up the rest, less than 0.001%.
Uranium 235 is a more useful material than uranium 238, because it's a 
better fuel for some reactors, such as reactors that provide electrical 
power or medically useful isotopes.  Therefore, the percentage of U-235 in 
the uranium is "enriched" for reactor fuel by selectively removing U-235 
atoms from the mix of natural uranium isotopes (a difficult and expensive 
process).  Common enrichments for power reactors is 3-to-5%, meaning that 
the uranium fuel is 3% to 5% U-235 by weight.
The material FROM which the U-235 was removed, the "waste" of the 
enrichment process, is called depleted uranium, because it has less U-235 
than natural uranium.
Ref: "Basic Radiation Protection Technology, 3d ed.," Daniel Gollnick, 
Pacific Radiation Corporation 1994. Pg. 204.

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