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What is depleted uranium?

Depleted uranium is created during the processing that is done to make natural uranium suitable for use as fuel in nuclear power plants or for nuclear weapons.

Natural uranium contains about 99.3 percent of the isotope uranium-238 and 0.7 percent of the fissionable isotope uranium-235. Although uranium-235 is the rarer of the uranium isotopes, it is the one that most readily undergoes nuclear fission and is thus the most useful for common nuclear applications. Therefore, to use uranium, the proportion of the uranium-235 isotope found in natural uranium must be increased. This process of increasing the fraction of uranium-235 in natural uranium is called enrichment.

The uranium enrichment process results in two streams of uranium: one containing greater than 0.7 percent uranium-235, and one containing less than 0.7 percent uranium-235. Depleted uranium is that uranium containing less than 0.7 percent of uranium-235. Depleted uranium is slightly less radioactive than natural uranium because some of the uranium-235 has been removed.

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