Uranium Mining and Enrichment
Uranium is a radioactive element that occurs naturally in the earth's surface. Uranium is used as a fuel for nuclear reactors. Uranium-bearing ores are mined, and the uranium is processed to make reactor fuel.
In nature, uranium atoms exist in several forms called isotopes - primarily uranium-238, or U-238, and uranium-235, or U-235. In a typical sample of natural uranium, most of the mass (99.3%) would consist of atoms of U-238, and a very small portion of the total mass (0.7%) would consist of atoms of U-235.
Isotopes of Uranium
Using uranium as a fuel in the types of nuclear reactors common in the United States requires that the uranium be enriched so that the percentage of U-235 is increased, typically to 3 to 5%.
To enrich the uranium, a process called gaseous diffusion was developed by the United States in the 1940s. The gaseous diffusion process creates two products: enriched uranium hexafluoride, and depleted uranium hexafluoride (depleted UF6).
Uses for Enriched and Depleted UF6