With our technology, uranium can be enriched for energy purposes.
Uranium is the fuel used in nuclear power plants to generate electricity. Before it can be used in a nuclear reactor, however, uranium has to undergo several industrial processes. Uranium enrichment is the key step in the nuclear fuel supply chain.
Uranium is mined as uranium ore, then milled, purified and concentrated at or near the mine site. This produces Uranium oxide (U3O8) commonly known in the industry as 'yellow cake' which is then transported to a conversion facility:
At the conversion facility, the milled uranium oxide is combined with hydrogen fluoride to form uranium hexafluoride (UF6). One of the unique properties of UF6 is that at room temperature it is a solid and when heated it turns into a gas without going through a liquid state. Once converted, the UF6 is put into thick steel cylinders commonly known as 48Y cylinders for transportation to enrichment facilities.
Before uranium can be used as fuel, it must be “enriched”. Uranium contains two isotopes, U-238 and the slightly lighter U-235. Natural uranium contains only around 0.7% U-235 and most nuclear reactors require a U-235 concentration of between 3% and 5%. The process of increasing the amount of U-235 is called enrichment. Throughout the global commercial nuclear industry, uranium is enriched by one of two methods: gaseous diffusion or gas centrifuge: ETC has developed a very efficient and reliable gas centrifuge technology, which has proven its effectiveness over many years of operation. The process uses a large number of rotating cylinders interconnected to form cascades. The UF6 gas is placed in the cylinder, which is then rotated at a high speed. The rotation creates a strong centrifugal force that draws more of the heavier gas molecules (containing the U238) toward the wall of the cylinder, while the lighter gas molecules (containing the U235) tend to collect closer to the center. The stream that is slightly enriched in U235 is withdrawn and fed into the next higher stage, while the slightly depleted stream is recycled back into the next lower stage. Significantly more U235 enrichment can be obtained from a single gas centrifuge cascade than from a single gaseous diffusion stage. Once the required enrichment level has been reached, the UF6 is placed into approved steel cylinders known 30B cylinders for transportation to a fuel fabrication facility.
The UF6 is chemically processed to form uranium dioxide (UO2) powder. This powder is then pressed into pellets, and loaded into tubes. The tubes are bundled together to form fuel rods and shipped to nuclear power stations.
The fuel rods are delivered to nuclear power plants where they are inserted into the core of the reactor. Heat generated by nuclear fission within the core is used to heat water to produce high pressure steam. This steam drives turbines which in turn generate electricity.
The electricity produced is fed into a grid, and distributed at high voltage. After the voltage is reduced, it is supplied to homes and businesses. As global reliance on electricity increases it becomes ever more important that our electricity needs are met via a sustainable route and nuclear energy meets that need.