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Uranium and plutonium are the key elements in a nuclear reaction

Iran is enriching uranium and breaking the limit set by the nuclear deal. Here’s what that means. VOX, By 

……….Uranium enrichment is a critical step in making nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. 

Uranium and plutonium are the key elements in a nuclear reaction…….. specific starting materials, most commonly uranium and plutonium, must be processed or enriched to drive a chain reaction.

Here are some of the basics: Uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element in the periodic table, with an atomic number of 92, representing the number of protons in its nucleus………..

Plutonium, on the other hand, is a synthetic element. It has an atomic number of 94 and is formed in nuclear reactors as a byproduct of neutrons being captured by uranium. Plutonium can be acquired from reprocessing spent fuel from conventional nuclear power plants, or reactors can be designed specifically to produce plutonium for use in weapons.

But making plutonium usually requires a reactor to begin with, so uranium remains the choke point for both uranium-based and plutonium-based weapons.

The nuclear reaction is the same for weapons and energy. The desired outcome is different.

So you have your uranium (or plutonium). Can you now make a bomb?

Not quite. Let’s wade into the history and science of splitting atoms to set the stage for nuclear negotiations today.

Researchers found since the 1930s that they could bombard uranium with neutrons to create heavier isotopes and form new elements that have never before been seen in nature, like plutonium.

An isotope is a variety of an element with the same chemical structure but a different internal composition. In comparing isotopes of an element like uranium, the atomic number stays the same, but the isotope number — the sum of the protons and neutrons in a nucleus — can differ. Uranium-235 (U-235), for example, has three fewer neutrons than uranium-238 (U-238), but they undergo the same chemical reactions.

In their experiments, German scientists Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassmann in 1938 found another curious result. Among the atoms resulting from neutron bombardment were much smaller atoms like barium, which has an atomic number of 56. Meitner, along with Austrian scientist Otto Frisch, realized that this was the result of splitting the uranium atom into smaller atoms, a phenomenon that also emits a huge amount of energy. The finding marked the dawn of the nuclear age.

Isotopes of atoms that can split apart (undergo fission) are described as fissile. When there are enough fissile atoms close together — a quantity known as critical mass — the particles ejected by fission can strike other fissile atoms, triggering more atoms to split apart and so on. The energy released in the process can generate heat to boil water to spin a turbine or wreak devastation from a bomb.

But not all uranium atoms can easily split apart and trigger a chain reaction. In fact, most can’t. In nature, about 99.7 percent of uranium is in the form of the non-fissile isotope U-238.

Only about 0.7 percent of uranium occurs in the fissile form of U-235. And in nature, U-235 is in such a low concentration that even if a stray neutron were to strike it with enough force to break it apart, it’s unlikely that the resulting neutrons would find another U-235 atom nearby to continue the reaction.

To produce a chain reaction, you need to increase the concentration of U-235 relative to U-238. This is called enrichment.

For plutonium, all isotopes are fissile, but some are easier to use in nuclear weapons than others. Plutonium rich in the isotope Pu-239, called weapons-grade plutonium, poses the fewest technical challenges and can be extracted from nuclear fuel that is only irradiated in a reactor for a short time.

Making uranium and plutonium useful is a major technical challenge

Enrichment is the sorting problem from hell.

Instead of uranium atoms, imagine you have a bag filled with 1,000 marbles, each identical in material, size, shape, color, and texture. However, there are seven marbles in the bag that weigh 1.3 percent less than the others. For 5-gram, 1.5-centimeter diameter marbles, we’re talking about a difference of about 65 milligrams for the light marbles, or the weight of a few grains of sand.

Since it’s tedious to weigh each individual marble, you’ll want to come up with some sort of group sorting mechanism. But weight is the only thing setting them apart and the difference between desired and undesired marbles is small, so the sorting process won’t be perfect and you’ll still have a mixture of light and heavy marbles at the end. So you run the results through the sorter again. And again. And again.

With each iteration, you have a higher percentage of lighter marbles, but every repetition costs time, money, and energy.

And remember, the marbles in this analogy are atoms, the smallest unit of matter, so they’re that much more difficult to manipulate, and it takes far longer to get the quantities you need when you’re trying to go from atoms of uranium to tons of it.

For a nuclear reactor cooled with ordinary water, you need only about 3 to 5 percent U-235 enrichment, but you need it by the ton. A 1-gigawatt nuclear reactor uses 27 tons of nuclear fuel per year. …

Uranium with more than 20 percent U-235 is considered highly enriched. Conversely, the residual uranium with U-235 removed is called depleted (this is the uranium used in armor-piercing ammunition).

A nuclear weapon, on the other hand, requires even higher enrichment, typically around 90 percent, though it needs much less mass than a reactor. The Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, used 141 pounds of highly enriched uranium, though only 2 percent actually underwent fission due to inefficiencies in the design of the bomb. The Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki used just 14 pounds of plutonium.

The International Atomic Energy Agency defines a “significant quantity” of nuclear material for a weapon to be 55 pounds of U-235 within a quantity of highly enriched uranium, or 17.6 pounds of plutonium.

Some countries with civilian nuclear reactors, like South Korea, don’t bother with the whole enrichment process and have opted instead to buy their nuclear fuel on the open international market. But for others, like France, mastering the fuel cycle is a vital pillar of their energy strategy.

The enrichment process has become easier, which makes controlling nuclear weapons harder

Both Iran and North Korea have developed surreptitious enrichment networks for producing nuclear material. These facilities are hard to detect and easy to reconfigure, so without regular inspections and monitoring, the possibility of a clandestine nuclear weapons program remains.

This wasn’t always the case.

The Manhattan Project marked the first successful effort to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon. One of the earliest and most primitive enrichment techniques used in this endeavor was gaseous diffusion. Here, uranium is reacted with fluorine to make uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6). The gas is then pumped through membranes, the idea being that lighter isotopes of uranium would diffuse faster than heavier isotopes (fluorine has only one naturally occurring isotope, so any differences in the mass of the gas come from uranium).

But each stage of the process could only separate a tiny amount of uranium, so gaseous diffusion required huge buildings and devoured energy to power the pumps needed to move the gas through the separation stages.

“The original ways of doing it were very inefficient,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They required very large amounts of land, lots of power.”

For example, the K-25 gaseous diffusion building in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was completed in 1945 at a cost of $500 million. It was half a mile long and 1,000 feet wide, making it the largest building under one roof at the time. The facility employed 12,000 workers at its peak and consumed enough electricity to power 20,000 homes for a year.

These days, uranium enrichment is much more subtle. The most common tool is the gas centrifuge. This is where uranium hexafluoride gas is fed into a column spinning at upward of 100,000 rotations per minute.

As the centrifuge spins, the heavier isotopes push harder against its wall than the lighter ones. The centrifuge also induces the gas to circulate within the device, further increasing separation. The output of one centrifuge is then fed into another and another in an arrangement called a cascade.

Centrifuges are more energy-efficient than other enrichment techniques and are harder to detect. The centrifuges themselves don’t take up much floor space, so their plants have a much smaller physical footprint than gaseous diffusion facilities. They also don’t draw as much electricity, nor do they leave much of a heat signature.

A declassified 1960 report from a contractor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory noted that “it would not be too difficult to build a relatively small clandestine gas centrifuge plant capable of producing sufficient enriched uranium for a small number of nuclear weapons.”

The point is a primitive enrichment apparatus is massive; a modern one is small.

“Centrifuges are the only [enrichment process] today that makes economic sense,” said R. Scott Kemp, director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy at MIT. “[A centrifuge plant] capable of producing a weapon can fit in a garage or a small office building, and the energy consumption is less than typical office lighting per square foot.”

That’s why arms control discussions focus so much on centrifuges, and why the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — went to great lengths to specify the number and type of centrifuges allowed, as well as how closely they are monitored. Centrifuges are the key variable in how long it takes to enrich a usable quantity of uranium, whether for fuel or for weapons.

To produce nuclear energy, where you need tons of uranium but at low levels of enrichment, an enrichment operation would need many parallel cascades, but only a handful of enrichment stages. For a weapon, which demands kilograms of uranium but at much higher enrichment, it’s almost the reverse: You would only need a few parallel cascades, but those cascades would involve dozens of stages. With enough centrifuges, getting enough usable uranium for either would only take a few weeks.

The term of art for the amount of effort required to enrich uranium is a separative work unit,or SWU. It’s built on a complicated formula, and it’s useful for describing the efficiency of a centrifuge cascade. It takes about 120,000 SWU per year to produce enough fuel for a 1-gigawatt nuclear reactor, but it only takes about 5,000 SWU to have enough material for a nuclear weapon. So a country with enough enrichment capacity to sustain a small nuclear energy program theoretically has enough throughput to build dozens of weapons.

And switching between a nuclear fuel centrifuge arrangement and a nuclear weapon arrangement isn’t all that difficult or time-consuming. It’s a matter of changing how pipes are routed, so converting a plant from supplying energy material to supplying weapons material could take no more than a few months.

The term of art for the amount of effort required to enrich uranium is a separative work unit,or SWU. It’s built on a complicated formula, and it’s useful for describing the efficiency of a centrifuge cascade. It takes about 120,000 SWU per year to produce enough fuel for a 1-gigawatt nuclear reactor, but it only takes about 5,000 SWU to have enough material for a nuclear weapon. So a country with enough enrichment capacity to sustain a small nuclear energy program theoretically has enough throughput to build dozens of weapons.

And switching between a nuclear fuel centrifuge arrangement and a nuclear weapon arrangement isn’t all that difficult or time-consuming. It’s a matter of changing how pipes are routed, so converting a plant from supplying energy material to supplying weapons material could take no more than a few months………….https://www.vox.com/2018/6/11/17369454/iran-uranium-enrichment

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July 9, 2019 - Posted by | Reference, technology

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