Are Uranium Weapons Made ofUranium?
decay chain ofU-235is different. Its daughter products include thorium-231, protactini-um-231, actinium-227, thorium-227, radium-223, radon-219, polonium 215, lead-211, bis-muth-211 and thallium-207. This series reaches stability with lead-207. The half-life ofU-238is 4.49 billion years. The half-life ofU-235is 710 million years. The third isotope of uranium found in nature is U-234. It is a decay product ofU-238. It is much less abun-dant than the other two uranium isotopes, and its half-life is 245,000 years.After uranium-bearing ore is mined, it is transported to a uranium mill. Here, theuranium is chemically separated from the other material present in the rock, including itsdaughter radioisotopes, and concentrated into a product called “yellowcake.” Yellowcake,a coarse powder, is approximately 80 percent triuranium octaoxide (U
). This uraniumhas the same relative concentrations ofU-238, U-235 and U-234 as the uranium found innature. The next step in the uranium fuel cycle is the conversion ofyellowcakeinto usablefuel for nuclear reactors or bombs. For a small number ofreactors, such as the CanadianCANDU reactor, uranium need not be enriched. For these, fuel pellets are produced sim-ply by converting the uranium in yellowcaketo uranium dioxide(UO
) metal. The major-ity ofnuclear reactors, however, require slightly enriched uraniumto sustain their chainreaction. To achieve this, the relative concentration ofU-235 in a mass ofuranium mustbe increased from 0.7196% to between three and five percent. Certain types ofnuclearweapons also require enriched uranium, and for these, the relative concentration ofU-235must exceed 90 percent.The process ofuranium enrichment first requires yellowcaketo be converted to ura-nium hexafluoride(UF
is a solid at room temperature. When heated to 134
C), it sublimes, entering a gaseous state. Either through the gaseous diffusion or gascentrifuge process, the lighter atoms ofU-235 are separated from the heavier atoms ofU-238 and then concentrated. As a consequence ofthe enrichment process, two differentproducts are produced: enriched uraniumand depleted uranium. Both leave the enrich-ment facility as UF
. Enriched uraniumcontains proportionally more U-235 than the ura-nium found in nature. Depleted uranium is only “depleted” ofa portion ofits U-235 con-tent. The relative concentration ofthe three isotopes ofuranium in depleted uranium isas follows: 99.7947% is U-238, 0.2015% is U-235 and 0.0008% is U-234. These numberscan be somewhat variable. The definition ofdepleted uranium by the Nuclear RegulatoryCommission is uranium with a U-235 content less than 0.72%. The Department of Defense requires that uranium used for military purposes have a U-235 content ofless than0.3%.The differences between non-depleted and depleted uranium may be visualized inthe form ofthe following table, reproduced from the IAEA website. It is important to note