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Uranium enrichment

Uranium enrichment is a process that is necessary to create an effective nuclear fuel out of mined uranium by increasing the percentage of uranium-235 which undergoes fission with thermal neutrons.

Uranium enrichment

Uranium found in nature consists largely of two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The production of energy in nuclear reactors is from the 'fission' or splitting of the U-235 atoms, a process which releases energy in the form of heat. U-235 is the main fissile isotope of uranium.

Enrichment processes require uranium to be in a gaseous form at relatively low temperature, hence uranium oxide from the mine is converted to uranium hexafluoride in a preliminary process, at a separate conversion plant.

There is significant over-supply of enrichment capacity worldwide, much of which has been used to diminish uranium demand or supplement uranium supply. The ability of enrichment to substitute for uranium (see description of underfeeding below) has become more significant as centrifuge technology has taken over, since this means both lower SWU costs and the need to keep the centrifuges running, so capacity remains on line even as demand drops away.
  • Most of the 500 commercial nuclear power reactors operating or under construction in the world today require uranium 'enriched' in the U-235 isotope for their fuel.
  • The commercial process employed for this enrichment involves gaseous uranium in centrifuges. An Australian process based on laser excitation is under development.
  • Prior to enrichment, uranium oxide must be converted to a fluoride so that it can be processed as a gas, at low temperature.
  • From a non-proliferation standpoint, uranium enrichment is a sensitive technology needing to be subject to tight international control.
  • There is a significant surplus of world enrichment capacity.
Although 13 countries have enrichment production capability or near-capability, about 90% of world enrichment capacity is in the 5 nuclear weapons states. These plus Germany, Netherlands and Japan provide toll enrichment services to the commercial market.

Large commercial enrichment plants are in operation in France, Germany, Netherlands, UK, USA, and Russia, with smaller plants elsewhere. New centrifuge plants are being built in France and USA. Several plants are adding capacity. China’s capacity is expanding considerably, in line with domestic requirements. With surplus capacity, Russian plants operate at low tails assays (underfeeding) to produce low-enriched uranium for sale.

World enrichment capacity – operational and planned (thousand SWU/yr)
Country Company and plant 2013 2015 2020
France Areva, Georges Besse I & II 5500 7000 7500
Germany-Holland-UK Urenco: Gronau, Germany; Almelo, Holland; Capenhurst, UK. 14,200 14,400 14,900
Japan JNFL, Rokkaasho 75 75 75
USA USEC, Piketon 0 0 0
USA Urenco, New Mexico 3500 4700 4700
USA Areva, Idaho Falls 0 0 0
USA Global Laser Enrichment, Paducah 0 0 0
Russia Tenex: Angarsk, Novouralsk, Zelenogorsk, Seversk 26,000 26,578 28,663
China CNNC, Hanzhun & Lanzhou 2200 5760 10,700+
Other Various: Argentina, Brazil, India, Pakistan, Iran 75 100 170
Total SWU/yr approx 51,550 58,600 66,700
Requirements (WNA reference scenario) 49,154 47,285 57,456