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Wednesday, 10 July 2013





Nuclear Engineering

Degree & Branch

To gain some fundamental knowledge about nuclear physics, nuclear reactor, nuclear fuels, reactors and safe disposal of nuclear wastes.

Text book

1.         Thomas J.Cannoly, “Fundamentals of nuclear Engineering” John Wiley 1978.

1.        Collier J.G., and Hewitt G.F, “Introduction to Nuclear power”, Hemisphere publishing, New York. 1987
2.         Wakil M.M.El., “Power Plant Technology” – McGraw-Hill International, 1984.

Introduction of Nuclear Engineering
Nuclear engineering involves the design of systems and processes in which nuclear physics and radiation plays an important role. Although the traditional focus of nuclear engineering is the nuclear power industry, students with bachelor of science degrees in nuclear engineering also pursue careers in health and medical physics, plasma physics, plasma processing, and environmental mediation. Further, because of the breadth of the nuclear engineering curriculum, graduates are prepared to work in a number of technical areas outside the nuclear engineering field.
Nuclear energy, both from fission and fusion, offers a promising approach to meeting the nation's energy needs—an approach that may preserve jobs, raise the standard of living, and alleviate the depletion of natural resources including natural gas, petroleum, and coal. Nuclear energy will also be required to provide electricity on the moon or Mars and to propel space vehicles if we are to explore or colonize the solar system. Since the discovery of fission 50 years ago, electricity is being produced commercially in a several hundred billion-dollar industry. Applications of radioactive tracers have been made in medicine, science, and industry. Radiation from particle accelerators and materials made radioactive in nuclear reactors are used worldwide to treat cancer and other diseases, to provide power for satellite instrumentation, to preserve food, to sterilize medical supplies, to search for faults in welds and piping, and to polymerize chemicals. Low energy plasmas are used in the manufacture of microelectronics components and to improve the surface characteristics of materials. High energy plasmas offer the possibility of a new energy source using thermonuclear fusion. Because the breadth and rate of change in this field requires that the nuclear engineer have a broad educational background, the curriculum consists of physics, math, materials science, electronics, thermodynamics, heat transfer, computers, courses in the humanities and social science areas, and numerous elective courses. Courses of a specific nuclear engineering content come primarily in the third and fourth years.
The curriculum prepares students for careers in the nuclear industry and government—with electric utility companies, in regulatory positions with the federal or state governments, or for major contractors on the design and testing of improved reactors for central station power generation or for propulsion of naval vessels.
The curriculum also prepares the graduate for work in many areas where a broad technical background is more important than specialization in a specific field. Thus, the graduate is also prepared to work in any area where a broad engineering background is helpful, such as management, technical sales, or law. The curriculum gives students excellent preparation for graduate study in the fission and fusion areas, medical and health physics, applied superconductivity, particle accelerator technology, and other areas of engineering science in addition to study in areas such as materials science, physics, mathematics, and medicine.

Objectives of the Nuclear Engineering

·        Educate students in the fundamental subjects necessary for a career in nuclear engineering, and prepare students for advanced education in it and related fields;
·        Educate students in the basics of instrumentation, design of laboratory techniques, measurement, and data acquisition, interpretation and analysis;
·        Educate students in the methodology of design;
·        Provide and facilitate teamwork and multidisciplinary experiences throughout the curriculum
The nuclear engineer is concerned with the application of nuclear science and technology for the benefit of humankind. The safe, economic development of nuclear energy is a major area of activity for the nuclear engineer. The nuclear engineer is also concerned with the uses of radiation in medical diagnostics and therapy, preservation of food by irradiation, and the uses of radiation in industry for improving products and making measurements. The nuclear engineer is prepared to design a nuclear power reactor, determine how to operate a nuclear power plant most efficiently, and assist in the evaluation of environmental factors in existing nuclear power plants. With the rapidly expanding use of radiation in fields such as medical diagnostics and therapy and food irradiation, there is continuous demand for specialists in radiation protection and health physics. The safe, long-term storage of nuclear waste is also a challenging technical problem requiring engineers with knowledge of basic nuclear engineering.
Nuclear engineering includes the use of radiation in medicine for treatment and diagnostics; design, development and operation of nuclear power systems; numeric simulation of nuclear systems; health physics and radiation protection; biomedical engineering and radiation imaging; nondestructive examination of materials and structures using radiation techniques; nuclear energy for space power and propulsion; and using radiation in food processing, industrial processing and manufacturing control.
Nuclear model of an atom
The nuclear model of the atom describes how the three basic sub atomic particles, the proton, the neutron and the electron are arranged.
The nucleus is the centre of the atom and is positive in charge. It is made up of protons and neutrons.
Negative electrons orbit the atom. The atom is made up mostly of empty space.
The nuclear model of the atom consists of a nucleus (meaning: 'nut' or 'kernel') which is surrounded by orbiting electrons.
The atom is made up mostly of empty space.
The nucleus is made up of protons and neutrons.
Protons are positive, neutrons are neutral and electrons are negative.
In a neutral atom the number of protons (positive charge) = the number of electrons (negative charge)
Protons determine the identity of an element.
The number of protons is called the Atomic Number. Each element has a unique Atomic Number. eg. All atoms of Carbon have an Atomic Number of 6. ie. they all contain 6 protons. All atoms of oxygen contain 8 protons. ie. They have an Atomic Number of 8. The Atomic Number for each element can be found in the Periodic Table.
Neutrons help stabilise atoms. If there are too many or too few neutrons the atom becomes unstable. Atoms of the same element that contain a different number of neutrons are called isotopes.
Electrons are involved in chemical reactions. During a reaction electrons are either transferred or shared between chemical species. The noble gases are very unreactive because they have a complete number of electrons in their outer shell.
The Rutherford model or planetary model is a model of the atom devised by Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford directed the famous Geiger-Marsden experiment in 1909, which suggested on Rutherford's 1911 analysis that the so-called "plum pudding model" of J. J. Thomson of the atom was incorrect. Rutherford's new model for the atom, based on the experimental results, had the new features of a relatively high central charge concentrated into a very small volume in comparison to the rest of the atom and containing the bulk of the atomic mass (the nucleus of the atom).
Rutherford's model did not make any new headway in explaining the electron-structure of the atom; in this regard Rutherford merely mentioned earlier atomic models in which a number of tiny electrons circled the nucleus like planets around the sun, or a ring around a planet (such as Saturn). However, by implication, Rutherford's concentration of most of the atom's mass into a very small core made a planetary model an even more likely metaphor than before, as such a core would contain most of the atom's mass, in an analogous way to the Sun containing most of the solar system's mass.
In 1911, Rutherford came forth with his own physical model for subatomic structure, as an interpretation for the unexpected experimental results. In it, the atom is made up of a central charge (this is the modern atomic nucleus, though Rutherford did not use the term "nucleus" in his paper) surrounded by a cloud of (presumably) orbiting electrons. In this May 1911 paper, Rutherford only commits himself to a small central region of very high positive or negative charge in the atom.
"For concreteness, consider the passage of a high speed α particle through an atom having a positive central charge N e, and surrounded by a compensating charge of N electrons."
From purely energetic considerations of how far alpha particles of known speed would be able to penetrate toward a central charge of 100 e, Rutherford was able to calculate that the radius of his gold central charge would need to be less (how much less could not be told) than 3.4 x 10−14 metres (the modern value is only about a fifth of this). This was in a gold atom known to be 10−10 metres or so in radius—a very surprising finding, as it implied a strong central charge less than 1/3000th of the diameter of the atom.
The Rutherford model served to concentrate a great deal of the atom's charge and mass to a very small core, but didn't attribute any structure to the remaining electrons and remaining atomic mass. It did mention the atomic model of Hantaro Nagaoka, in which the electrons are arranged in one or more rings, with the specific metaphorical structure of the stable rings of Saturn. The so-called plum pudding model of J.J. Thomson had also had rings of orbiting electrons.
The Rutherford paper suggested that the central charge of an atom might be "proportional" to its atomic mass in hydrogen mass units u (roughly 1/2 of it, in Rutherford's model). For gold, this mass number is 197 (not then known to great accuracy) and was therefore modeled by Rutherford to be possibly 196 u. However, Rutherford did not attempt to make the direct connection of central charge to atomic number, since gold's place on the periodic table was known to be about 79 u, and Rutherford's more tentative model for the structure of the gold nucleus was 49 helium nuclei, which would have given it a mass of 196 u and charge of 98 e, which was much more in keeping with his experimentally-determined central charge for gold in this experiment of about 100 e. This differed enough from gold's "atomic number" (at that time merely its place number in the periodic table) that Rutherford did not formally suggest the two numbers (atomic number and nuclear charge) might be exactly the same.
A month after Rutherford's paper appeared, the proposal regarding the exact identity of atomic number and nuclear charge was made by Antonius van den Broek, and later confirmed experimentally within two years, by Henry Moseley.
concept of mass–energy equivalence connects the concepts of conservation of mass and conservation of energy, which continue to hold separately. The theory of relativity allows particles which have rest mass to be converted to other forms of mass which require motion, such as kinetic energy, heat, or light. However, the mass remains. Kinetic energy or light can also be converted to new kinds of particles which have rest mass, but again the energy remains. Both the total mass and the total energy inside a totally closed system remain constant over time, as seen by any single observer in a given inertial frame. In other words, energy cannot be created or destroyed, and energy, in all of its forms, has mass. Mass also cannot be created or destroyed, and in all of its forms, has energy. According to the theory of relativity, mass and energy as commonly understood, are two names for the same thing, and neither one is changed or transformed into the other. Rather, neither one appears without the other. Rather than mass being changed into energy, the view of relativity is that rest mass has been changed to a more mobile form of mass, but remains mass. In this process, neither the amount of mass nor the amount of energy changes. Thus, if energy changes type and leaves a system, it simply takes its mass with it. If either mass or energy disappears from a system, it will always be found that both have simply moved off to another place.

Fast-moving objects and systems of objects

When an object is pushed in the direction of motion, it gains momentum and energy, but when the object is already traveling near the speed of light, it cannot move much faster, no matter how much energy it absorbs. Its momentum and energy continue to increase without bounds, whereas its speed approaches a constant value—the speed of light. This implies that in relativity the momentum of an object cannot be a constant times the velocity, nor can the kinetic energy be a constant times the square of the velocity.
The relativistic mass is defined as the ratio of the momentum of an object to its velocity.[4] Relativistic mass depends on the motion of the object. If the object is moving slowly, the relativistic mass is nearly equal to the rest mass and both are nearly equal to the usual Newtonian mass. If the object is moving quickly, the relativistic mass is greater than the rest mass by an amount equal to the mass associated with the kinetic energy of the object. As the object approaches the speed of light, the relativistic mass grows infinitely, because the kinetic energy grows infinitely and this energy is associated with mass.
The relativistic mass is always equal to the total energy (rest energy plus kinetic energy) divided by c2.[3] Because the relativistic mass is exactly proportional to the energy, relativistic mass and relativistic energy are nearly synonyms; the only difference between them is the units. If length and time are measured in natural units, the speed of light is equal to 1, and even this difference disappears. Then mass and energy have the same units and are always equal, so it is redundant to speak about relativistic mass, because it is just another name for the energy. This is why physicists usually reserve the useful short word "mass" to mean rest-mass.
For things made up of many parts, like an atomic nucleus, planet, or star, the relativistic mass is the sum of the relativistic masses (or energies) of the parts, because energies are additive in closed systems. This is not true in systems which are open, however, if energy is subtracted. For example, if a system is bound by attractive forces and the work they do in attraction is removed from the system, mass will be lost. Such work is a form of energy which itself has mass, and thus mass is removed from the system, as it is bound. For example, the mass of an atomic nucleus is less than the total mass of the protons and neutrons that make it up, but this is only true after the energy (work) of binding has been removed in the form of a gamma ray (which in this system, carries away the mass of binding). This mass decrease is also equivalent to the energy required to break up the nucleus into individual protons and neutrons (in this case, work and mass would need to be supplied). Similarly, the mass of the solar system is slightly less than the masses of sun and planets individually.
The relativistic mass of a moving object is bigger than the relativistic mass of an object that is not moving, because a moving object has extra kinetic energy. The rest mass of an object is defined as the mass of an object when it is at rest, so that the rest mass is always the same, independent of the motion of the observer: it is the same in all inertial frames.
For a system of particles going off in different directions, the invariant mass of the system is the analog of the rest mass, and is the same for all observers. It is defined as the total energy (divided by c2) in the center of mass frame (where by definition, the system total momentum is zero). A simple example of an object with moving parts but zero total momentum, is a container of gas. In this case, the mass of the container is given by its total energy (including the kinetic energy of the gas molecules), since the system total energy and invariant mass are the same in the reference frame where the momentum is zero, and this reference frame is also the only frame in which the object can be weighed.
As is noted above, two different definitions of mass have been used in special relativity, and also two different definitions of energy. The simple equation E = mc² is not generally applicable to all these types of mass and energy, except in the special case that the momentum is zero for the system under consideration. In such a case, which is always guaranteed when observing the system from the center of mass frame, E = mc² is true for any type of mass and energy that are chosen. Thus, for example, in the center of mass frame the total energy of an object or system is equal to its rest mass times c², a useful equality. This is the relationship used for the container of gas in the previous example. It is not true in other reference frames in which a system or object's total energy will depend on both its rest (or invariant) mass, and also its total momentum.
In inertial reference frames other than the rest frame or center of mass frame, the equation E = mc² remains true if the energy is the relativistic energy and the mass the relativistic mass. It is also correct if the energy is the rest or invariant energy (also the minimum energy), and the mass is the rest or invariant mass.
However, connection of the total or relativistic energy (Er) with the rest or invariant mass (m0) requires consideration of the system total momentum, in systems and reference frames where momentum has a non-zero value. The formula then required to connect the different kinds of mass and energy, is the extended version of Einstein's equation, called the relativistic energy–momentum relationship:
Here the (pc)2 term represents the square of the Euclidean norm (total vector length) of the various momentum vectors in the system, which reduces to the square of the simple momentum magnitude, if only a single particle is considered. Obviously this equation reduces to E = mc² when the momentum term is zero. For photons where m0 = 0, the equation reduces to Er = pc.

Binding energy and the "mass defect"

Whenever any type of energy is removed from a system, the mass associated with the energy is also removed, and the system therefore loses mass. This mass defect in the system may be simply calculated as Δm = ΔE/c2, but use of this formula in such circumstances has led to the false idea that mass has been "converted" to energy. This may be particularly the case when the energy (and mass) removed from the system is associated with the binding energy of the system. In such cases, the binding energy is observed as a "mass defect" or deficit in the new system and the fact that the released energy is not easily weighed may cause its mass to be neglected.
The difference between the rest mass of a bound system and of the unbound parts is the binding energy of the system, if this energy has been removed after binding. For example, a water molecule weighs a little less than two free hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom; the minuscule mass difference is the energy that is needed to split the molecule into three individual atoms (divided by c²), and which was given off as heat when the molecule formed (this heat had mass). Likewise, a stick of dynamite in theory weighs a little bit more than the fragments after the explosion, but this is true only so long as the fragments are cooled and the heat removed. In this case the mass difference is the energy/heat that is released when the dynamite explodes, and when this heat escapes, the mass associated with it escapes, only to be deposited in the surroundings which absorb the heat (so that total mass is conserved).
Such a change in mass may only happen when the system is open, and the energy and mass escapes. Thus, if a stick of dynamite is blown up in a hermetically sealed chamber, the mass of the chamber and fragments, the heat, sound, and light would still be equal to the original mass of the chamber and dynamite. If sitting on a scale, the weight and mass would not change. This would in theory also happen even with a nuclear bomb, if it could be kept in an ideal box of infinite strength, which did not rupture or pass radiation. Thus, a 21.5 kiloton (9 x 1013joule) nuclear bomb produces about one gram of heat and electromagnetic radiation, but the mass of this energy would not be detectable in an exploded bomb in an ideal box sitting on a scale; instead, the contents of the box would be heated to millions of degrees without changing total mass and weight. If then, however, a transparent window (passing only electromagnetic radiation) were opened in such an ideal box after the explosion, and a beam of X-rays and other lower-energy light allowed to escape the box, it would eventually be found to weigh one gram less than it had before the explosion. This weight-loss and mass-loss would happen as the box was cooled by this process, to room temperature. However, any surrounding mass which had absorbed the X-rays (and other "heat") would gain this gram of mass from the resulting heating, so the mass "loss" would represent merely its relocation. Thus, no mass (or, in the case of a nuclear bomb, no matter) would be "converted" to energy in such a process. Mass and energy, as always, would both be separately conserved.

Massless particles

Massless particles have zero rest mass. Their relativistic mass is simply their relativistic energy, divided by c2, or m(relativistic) = E/c2. The energy for photons is E = hν where h is Planck's constant and ν is the photon frequency. This frequency and thus the relativistic energy are frame-dependent.
If an observer runs away from a photon in the direction it travels from a source, having it catch up with the observer, then when the photon catches up it will be seen as having less energy than it had at the source. The faster the observer is traveling with regard to the source when the photon catches up, the less energy the photon will have. As an observer approaches the speed of light with regard to the source, the photon looks redder and redder, by relativistic Doppler effect (the Doppler shift is the relativistic formula), and the energy of a very long-wavelength photon approaches zero. This is why a photon is massless; this means that the rest mass of a photon is zero.
Two photons moving in different directions cannot both be made to have arbitrarily small total energy by changing frames, or by moving toward or away from them. The reason is that in a two-photon system, the energy of one photon is decreased by chasing after it, but the energy of the other will increase with the same shift in observer motion. Two photons not moving in the same direction will exhibit an inertial frame where the combined energy is smallest, but not zero. This is called the center of mass frame or the center of momentum frame; these terms are almost synonyms (the center of mass frame is the special case of a center of momentum frame where the center of mass is put at the origin). The most that chasing a pair of photons can accomplish to decrease their energy is to put the observer in frame where the photons have equal energy and are moving directly away from each other. In this frame, the observer is now moving in the same direction and speed as the center of mass of the two photons. The total momentum of the photons is now zero, since their momentums are equal and opposite. In this frame the two photons, as a system, have a mass equal to their total energy divided by c2. This mass is called the invariant mass of the pair of photons together. It is the smallest mass and energy the system may be seen to have, by any observer. It is only the invariant mass of a two-photon system that can be used to make a single particle with the same rest mass.
If the photons are formed by the collision of a particle and an antiparticle, the invariant mass is the same as the total energy of the particle and antiparticle (their rest energy plus the kinetic energy), in the center of mass frame, where they will automatically be moving in equal and opposite directions (since they have equal momentum in this frame). If the photons are formed by the disintegration of a single particle with a well-defined rest mass, like the neutral pion, the invariant mass of the photons is equal to rest mass of the pion. In this case, the center of mass frame for the pion is just the frame where the pion is at rest, and the center of mass does not change after it disintegrates into two photons. After the two photons are formed, their center of mass is still moving the same way the pion did, and their total energy in this frame adds up to the mass energy of the pion. Thus, by calculating the invariant mass of pairs of photons in a particle detector, pairs can be identified that were probably produced by pion disintegration.

Radioactive decay

Alpha decay is one example type of radioactive decay, in which an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle, and thereby transforms (or 'decays') into an atom with a mass number 4 less and atomic number 2 less. Many other types of decays are possible.
Radioactive decay is the process by which an atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing particles (ionizing radiation). The emission is spontaneous, in that the atom decays without any interaction with another particle from outside the atom (i.e., without a nuclear reaction). Usually, radioactive decay happens due to a process confined to the nucleus of the unstable atom, but, on occasion (as with the different processes of electron capture and internal conversion), an inner electron of the radioactive atom is also necessary to the process.
Radioactive decay is a stochastic (i.e., random) process at the level of single atoms, in that, according to quantum theory, it is impossible to predict when a given atom will decay.[1] However, given a large number of identical atoms (nuclides), the decay rate for the collection is predictable, via the Law of Large Numbers.
The decay, or loss of energy, results when an atom with one type of nucleus, called the parent radionuclide, transforms to an atom with a nucleus in a different state, or a different nucleus, either of which is named the daughter nuclide. Often the parent and daughter are different chemical elements, and in such cases the decay process results in nuclear transmutation. In an example of this, a carbon-14 atom (the "parent") emits radiation (a beta particle, antineutrino, and a gamma ray) and transforms to a nitrogen-14 atom (the "daughter"). By contrast, there exist two types of radioactive decay processes (gamma decay and internal conversion decay) that do not result in transmutation, but only decrease the energy of an excited nucleus. This results in an atom of the same element as before but with a nucleus in a lower energy state. An example is the nuclear isomer technetium-99m decaying, by the emission of a gamma ray, to an atom of technetium-99.
Nuclides produced as daughters are called radiogenic nuclides, whether they themselves are stable or not. A number of naturally occurring radionuclides are short-lived radiogenic nuclides that are the daughters of radioactive primordial nuclides (types of radioactive atoms that have been present since the beginning of the Earth and solar system). Other naturally occurring radioactive nuclides are cosmogenic nuclides, formed by cosmic ray bombardment of material in the Earth's atmosphere or crust. For a summary table showing the number of stable nuclides and of radioactive nuclides in each category, see Radionuclide.
The SI unit of activity is the becquerel (Bq). One Bq is defined as one transformation (or decay) per second. Since any reasonably-sized sample of radioactive material contains many atoms, a Bq is a tiny measure of activity; amounts on the order of GBq (gigabecquerel, 1 x 109 decays per second) or TBq (terabecquerel, 1 x 1012 decays per second) are commonly used. Another unit of radioactivity is the curie, Ci, which was originally defined as the amount of radium emanation (radon-222) in equilibrium with one gram of pure radium, isotope Ra-226. At present it is equal, by definition, to the activity of any radionuclide decaying with a disintegration rate of 3.7 × 1010 Bq. The use of Ci is presently discouraged by the SI.

Types of decay

As for types of radioactive radiation, it was found that an electric or magnetic field could split such emissions into three types of beams. For lack of better terms, the rays were given the alphabetic names alpha, beta, and gamma, still in use today. While alpha decay was seen only in heavier elements (atomic number 52, tellurium, and greater), the other two types of decay were seen in all of the elements.
In analyzing the nature of the decay products, it was obvious from the direction of electromagnetic forces produced upon the radiations by external magnetic and electric fields that alpha rays carried a positive charge, beta rays carried a negative charge, and gamma rays were neutral. From the magnitude of deflection, it was clear that alpha particles were much more massive than beta particles. Passing alpha particles through a very thin glass window and trapping them in a discharge tube allowed researchers to study the emission spectrum of the resulting gas, and ultimately prove that alpha particles are helium nuclei. Other experiments showed the similarity between classical beta radiation and cathode rays: They are both streams of electrons. Likewise gamma radiation and X-rays were found to be similar high-energy electromagnetic radiation.
The relationship between types of decays also began to be examined: For example, gamma decay was almost always found associated with other types of decay, occurring at about the same time, or afterward. Gamma decay as a separate phenomenon (with its own half-life, now termed isomeric transition), was found in natural radioactivity to be a result of the gamma decay of excited metastable nuclear isomers, in turn created from other types of decay.
Although alpha, beta, and gamma were found most commonly, other types of decay were eventually discovered. Shortly after the discovery of the positron in cosmic ray products, it was realized that the same process that operates in classical beta decay can also produce positrons (positron emission). In an analogous process, instead of emitting positrons and neutrinos, some proton-rich nuclides were found to capture their own atomic electrons (electron capture), and emit only a neutrino (and usually also a gamma ray). Each of these types of decay involves the capture or emission of nuclear electrons or positrons, and acts to move a nucleus toward the ratio of neutrons to protons that has the least energy for a given total number of nucleons (neutrons plus protons).
Shortly after discovery of the neutron in 1932, it was discovered by Enrico Fermi that certain rare decay reactions yield neutrons as a decay particle (neutron emission). Isolated proton emission was eventually observed in some elements. It was also found that some heavy elements may undergo spontaneous fission into products that vary in composition. In a phenomenon called cluster decay, specific combinations of neutrons and protons (atomic nuclei) other than alpha particles (helium nuclei) were found to be spontaneously emitted from atoms, on occasion.
Other types of radioactive decay that emit previously seen particles were found, but by different mechanisms. An example is internal conversion, which results in electron and sometimes high-energy photon emission, even though it involves neither beta nor gamma decay. This type of decay (like isomeric transition gamma decay) did not transmute one element to another.
Rare events that involve a combination of two beta-decay type events happening simultaneously (see below) are known. Any decay process that does not violate conservation of energy or momentum laws (and perhaps other particle conservation laws) is permitted to happen, although not all have been detected. An interesting example (discussed in a final section) is bound state beta decay of rhenium-187. In this process, an inverse of electron capture, beta electron-decay of the parent nuclide is not accompanied by beta electron emission, because the beta particle has been captured into the K-shell of the emitting atom. An antineutrino, however, is emitted.

Decay modes in table form

Radionuclides can undergo a number of different reactions. These are summarized in the following table. A nucleus with mass number A and atomic number Z is represented as (A, Z). The column "Daughter nucleus" indicates the difference between the new nucleus and the original nucleus. Thus, (A − 1, Z) means that the mass number is one less than before, but the atomic number is the same as before.
Mode of decay
Participating particles
Daughter nucleus
Decays with emission of nucleons:
An alpha particle (A = 4, Z = 2) emitted from nucleus
(A − 4, Z − 2)
A proton ejected from nucleus
(A − 1, Z − 1)
A neutron ejected from nucleus
(A − 1, Z)
Two protons ejected from nucleus simultaneously
(A − 2, Z − 2)
Nucleus disintegrates into two or more smaller nuclei and other particles
Nucleus emits a specific type of smaller nucleus (A1, Z1) smaller than, or larger than, an alpha particle
(A − A1, Z − Z1) + (A1, Z1)
Different modes of beta decay:
A nucleus emits an electron and an electron antineutrino
(A, Z + 1)
A nucleus emits a positron and a electron neutrino
(A, Z − 1)
A nucleus captures an orbiting electron and emits a neutrino the daughter nucleus is left in an excited unstable state
(A, Z − 1)
A nucleus beta decays to electron and antineutrino, but the electron is not emitted, as it is captured into an empty K-shell;the daughter nucleus is left in an excited and unstable state. This process is suppressed except in ionized atoms that have K-shell vacancies.
(A, Z + 1)
A nucleus emits two electrons and two antineutrinos
(A, Z + 2)
A nucleus absorbs two orbital electrons and emits two neutrinos – the daughter nucleus is left in an excited and unstable state
(A, Z − 2)
A nucleus absorbs one orbital electron, emits one positron and two neutrinos
(A, Z − 2)
A nucleus emits two positrons and two neutrinos
(A, Z − 2)
Transitions between states of the same nucleus:
Excited nucleus releases a high-energy photon (gamma ray)
(A, Z)
Excited nucleus transfers energy to an orbital electron and it is ejected from the atom
(A, Z)
Radioactive decay results in a reduction of summed rest mass, once the released energy (the disintegration energy) has escaped in some way (for example, the products might be captured and cooled, and the heat allowed to escape). Although decay energy is sometimes defined as associated with the difference between the mass of the parent nuclide products and the mass of the decay products, this is true only of rest mass measurements, where some energy has been removed from the product system. This is true because the decay energy must always carry mass with it, wherever it appears (see mass in special relativity) according to the formula E = mc2. The decay energy is initially released as the energy of emitted photons plus the kinetic energy of massive emitted particles (that is, particles that have rest mass). If these particles come to thermal equilibrium with their surroundings and photons are absorbed, then the decay energy is transformed to thermal energy, which retains its mass.
Decay energy therefore remains associated with a certain measure of mass of the decay system invariant mass. The energy of photons, kinetic energy of emitted particles, and, later, the thermal energy of the surrounding matter, all contribute to calculations of invariant mass of systems. Thus, while the sum of rest masses of particles is not conserved in radioactive decay, the system mass and system invariant mass (and also the system total energy) is conserved throughout any decay process

Nuclear cross section

The nuclear cross section of a nucleus is used to characterize the probability that a nuclear reaction will occur. The concept of a nuclear cross section can be quantified physically in terms of "characteristic area" where a larger area means a larger probability of interaction. The standard unit for measuring a nuclear cross section (denoted as σ) is the barn, which is equal to 10−28 m² or 10−24 cm². Cross sections can be measured for all possible interaction processes together, in which case they are called total cross sections, or for specific processes, distinguishing elastic scattering and inelastic scattering; of the latter, amongst neutron cross sections the absorption cross sections are of particular interest.
In nuclear physics it is conventional to consider the impinging particles as point particles having negligible diameter. Cross sections can be computed for any sort of process, such as capture scattering, production of neutrons, etc. In many cases, the number of particles emitted or scattered in nuclear processes is not measured directly; one merely measures the attenuation produced in a parallel beam of incident particles by the interposition of a known thickness of a particular material. The cross section obtained in this way is called the total cross section and is usually denoted by a σ or σT.
The typical nuclear radius is of the order of 10−12 cm. We might therefore expect the cross sections for nuclear reactions to be of the order of πr² or roughly 10−24 cm² and this unit is given its own name, the barn, and is the unit in which cross sections are usually expressed. Actually the observed cross sections vary enormously. Thus for slow neutrons absorbed by the (n, γ) reaction the cross section in some cases is as much as 1,000 barns, while the cross sections for transmutations by gamma-ray absorption are in the neighborhood of 0.001 barn.

 Macroscopic cross section

Nuclear cross sections are used in determining the nuclear reaction rate, and are governed by the reaction rate equation for a particular set of particles (usually viewed as a "beam and target" thought experiment where one particle or nucleus is the "target" [typically at rest] and the other is treated as a "beam" [projectile with a given energy]).
For neutron interactions incident upon a thin sheet of material (ideally made of a single type of isotope), the nuclear reaction rate equation is written as:
  • rx : number of reactions of type x, units: [1/time/volume]
  • Φ : neutron beam flux, units: [1/area/time]
  • σx : microscopic cross section for reaction x, units: [area] (usually barns or cm2).
  • ρA : density of atoms in the target in units of [1/volume]
  • : macroscopic cross-section [1/length]
Types of reactions frequently encountered are s: scattering, γ: radiative capture, a: absorption (radiative capture belongs to this type), f: fission, the corresponding notation for cross-sections being: σs, σγ, σa, etc. A special case is the total cross-section σt, which gives the probability of a neutron to undergo any sort of reaction (σt = σs + σγ + σf + ...).
Formally, the equation above defines the macroscopic neutron cross-section (for reaction x) as the proportionality constant between a neutron flux incident on a (thin) piece of material and the number of reactions that occur (per unit volume) in that material. The distinction between macroscopic and microscopic cross-section is that the former is a property of a specific lump of material (with its density), while the latter is an intrinsic property of a type of nuclei.

Nuclear fission

An induced fission reaction. A slow-moving neutron is absorbed by the nucleus of a uranium-235 atom, which in turn splits into fast-moving lighter elements (fission products) and releases three free neutrons.
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts (lighter nuclei), often producing free neutrons and photons (in the form of gamma rays). The two nuclei produced are most often of comparable size, typically with a mass ratio around 3:2 for common fissile isotopes.[1][2] Most fissions are binary fissions, but occasionally (2 to 4 times per 1000 events), three positively-charged fragments are produced in a ternary fission. The smallest of these ranges in size from a proton to an argon nucleus.
Fission is usually an energetic nuclear reaction induced by a neutron, although it is occasionally seen as a form of spontaneous radioactive decay, especially in very high-mass-number isotopes. The unpredictable composition of the products (which vary in a broad probabilistic and somewhat chaotic manner) distinguishes fission from purely quantum-tunnelling processes such as proton emission, alpha decay and cluster decay, which give the same products every time.
Fission of heavy elements is an exothermic reaction which can release large amounts of energy both as electromagnetic radiation and as kinetic energy of the fragments (heating the bulk material where fission takes place). In order for fission to produce energy, the total binding energy of the resulting elements must be less than that of the starting element. Fission is a form of nuclear transmutation because the resulting fragments are not the same element as the original atom.
Nuclear fission produces energy for nuclear power and to drive the explosion of nuclear weapons. Both uses are possible because certain substances called nuclear fuels undergo fission when struck by fission neutrons, and in turn emit neutrons when they break apart. This makes possible a self-sustaining chain reaction that releases energy at a controlled rate in a nuclear reactor or at a very rapid uncontrolled rate in a nuclear weapon.
The amount of free energy contained in nuclear fuel is millions of times the amount of free energy contained in a similar mass of chemical fuel such as gasoline, making nuclear fission a very tempting source of energy. The products of nuclear fission, however, are on average far more radioactive than the heavy elements which are normally fissioned as fuel, and remain so for significant amounts of time, giving rise to a nuclear waste problem. Concerns over nuclear waste accumulation and over the destructive potential of nuclear weapons may counterbalance the desirable qualities of fission as an energy source, and give rise to ongoing political debate over nuclear power.

Fission reactors

Critical fission reactors are the most common type of nuclear reactor. In a critical fission reactor, neutrons produced by fission of fuel atoms are used to induce yet more fissions, to sustain a controllable amount of energy release. Devices that produce engineered but non-self-sustaining fission reactions are subcritical fission reactors. Such devices use radioactive decay or particle accelerators to trigger fissions.
Critical fission reactors are built for three primary purposes, which typically involve different engineering trade-offs to take advantage of either the heat or the neutrons produced by the fission chain reaction:
  • power reactors are intended to produce heat for nuclear power, either as part of a generating station or a local power system such as a nuclear submarine.
  • research reactors are intended to produce neutrons and/or activate radioactive sources for scientific, medical, engineering, or other research purposes.
  • breeder reactors are intended to produce nuclear fuels in bulk from more abundant isotopes. The better known fast breeder reactor makes 239Pu (a nuclear fuel) from the naturally very abundant 238U (not a nuclear fuel). Thermal breeder reactors previously tested using 232Th to breed the fissile isotope 233U continue to be studied and developed.
While, in principle, all fission reactors can act in all three capacities, in practice the tasks lead to conflicting engineering goals and most reactors have been built with only one of the above tasks in mind. (There are several early counter-examples, such as the Hanford N reactor, now decommissioned). Power reactors generally convert the kinetic energy of fission products into heat, which is used to heat a working fluid and drive a heat engine that generates mechanical or electrical power. The working fluid is usually water with a steam turbine, but some designs use other materials such as gaseous helium. Research reactors produce neutrons that are used in various ways, with the heat of fission being treated as an unavoidable waste product. Breeder reactors are a specialized form of research reactor, with the caveat that the sample being irradiated is usually the fuel itself, a mixture of 238U and 235U. For a more detailed description of the physics and operating principles of critical fission reactors, see nuclear reactor physics. For a description of their social, political, and environmental aspects, see nuclear reactor

Chain reactions

A uranium-235 atom absorbs a neutron and fissions into two new atoms (fission fragments), releasing three new neutrons and some binding energy. 2. One of those neutrons is absorbed by an atom of uranium-238 and does not continue the reaction. Another neutron is simply lost and does not collide with anything, also not continuing the reaction. However one neutron does collide with an atom of uranium-235, which then fissions and releases two neutrons and some binding energy. 3. Both of those neutrons collide with uranium-235 atoms, each of which fissions and releases between one and three neutrons, which can then continue the reaction.
Main article: Nuclear chain reaction
Several heavy elements, such as uranium, thorium, and plutonium, undergo both spontaneous fission, a form of radioactive decay and induced fission, a form of nuclear reaction. Elemental isotopes that undergo induced fission when struck by a free neutron are called fissionable; isotopes that undergo fission when struck by a thermal, slow moving neutron are also called fissile. A few particularly fissile and readily obtainable isotopes (notably 235U and 239Pu) are called nuclear fuels because they can sustain a chain reaction and can be obtained in large enough quantities to be useful.
All fissionable and fissile isotopes undergo a small amount of spontaneous fission which releases a few free neutrons into any sample of nuclear fuel. Such neutrons would escape rapidly from the fuel and become a free neutron, with a mean lifetime of about 15 minutes before decaying to protons and beta particles. However, neutrons almost invariably impact and are absorbed by other nuclei in the vicinity long before this happens (newly-created fission neutrons move at about 7% of the speed of light, and even moderated neutrons move at about 8 times the speed of sound). Some neutrons will impact fuel nuclei and induce further fissions, releasing yet more neutrons. If enough nuclear fuel is assembled in one place, or if the escaping neutrons are sufficiently contained, then these freshly emitted neutrons outnumber the neutrons that escape from the assembly, and a sustained nuclear chain reaction will take place.
An assembly that supports a sustained nuclear chain reaction is called a critical assembly or, if the assembly is almost entirely made of a nuclear fuel, a critical mass. The word "critical" refers to a cusp in the behavior of the differential equation that governs the number of free neutrons present in the fuel: if less than a critical mass is present, then the amount of neutrons is determined by radioactive decay, but if a critical mass or more is present, then the amount of neutrons is controlled instead by the physics of the chain reaction. The actual mass of a critical mass of nuclear fuel depends strongly on the geometry and surrounding materials.
Not all fissionable isotopes can sustain a chain reaction. For example, 238U, the most abundant form of uranium, is fissionable but not fissile: it undergoes induced fission when impacted by an energetic neutron with over 1 MeV of kinetic energy. But too few of the neutrons produced by 238U fission are energetic enough to induce further fissions in 238U, so no chain reaction is possible with this isotope. Instead, bombarding 238U with slow neutrons causes it to absorb them (becoming 239U) and decay by beta emission to 239Np which then decays again by the same process to 239Pu; that process is used to manufacture 239Pu in breeder reactors. In-situ plutonium production also contributes to the neutron chain reaction in other types of reactors after sufficient plutonium-239 has been produced, since plutonium-239 is also a fissile element which serves as fuel. It is estimated that up to half of the power produced by a standard "non-breeder" reactor is produced by the fission of plutonium-239 produced in place, over the total life-cycle of a fuel load.
Fissionable, non-fissile isotopes can be used as fission energy source even without a chain reaction. Bombarding 238U with fast neutrons induces fissions, releasing energy as long as the external neutron source is present. This is an important effect in all reactors where fast neutrons from the fissile isotope can cause the fission of nearby 238U nuclei, which means that some small part of the 238U is "burned-up" in all nuclear fuels, especially in fast breeder reactors that operate with higher-energy neutrons. That same fast-fission effect is used to augment the energy released by modern thermonuclear weapons, by jacketing the weapon with 238U to react with neutrons released by nuclear fusion at the center of the device

Fission bombs

The mushroom cloud of the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945 rose some 18 kilometers (11 miles) above the bomb's hypocenter.
One class of nuclear weapon, a fission bomb (not to be confused with the fusion bomb), otherwise known as an atomic bomb or atom bomb, is a fission reactor designed to liberate as much energy as possible as rapidly as possible, before the released energy causes the reactor to explode (and the chain reaction to stop). Development of nuclear weapons was the motivation behind early research into nuclear fission: the Manhattan Project of the U.S. military during World War II carried out most of the early scientific work on fission chain reactions, culminating in the Trinity test bomb and the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs that were exploded over the cities Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945.
Even the first fission bombs were thousands of times more explosive than a comparable mass of chemical explosive. For example, Little Boy weighed a total of about four tons (of which 60 kg was nuclear fuel) and was 11 feet (3.4 m) long; it also yielded an explosion equivalent to about 15 kilotons of TNT, destroying a large part of the city of Hiroshima. Modern nuclear weapons (which include a thermonuclear fusion as well as one or more fission stages) are literally hundreds of times more energetic for their weight than the first pure fission atomic bombs, so that a modern single missile warhead bomb weighing less than 1/8 as much as Little Boy (see for example W88) has a yield of 475,000 tons of TNT, and could bring destruction to 10 times the city area.
While the fundamental physics of the fission chain reaction in a nuclear weapon is similar to the physics of a controlled nuclear reactor, the two types of device must be engineered quite differently (see nuclear reactor physics). A nuclear bomb is designed to release all its energy at once, while a reactor is designed to generate a steady supply of useful power. While overheating of a reactor can lead to, and has led to, meltdown and steam explosions, the much lower uranium enrichment makes it impossible for a nuclear reactor to explode with the same destructive power as a nuclear weapon. It is also difficult to extract useful power from a nuclear bomb, although at least one rocket propulsion system, Project Orion, is intended to work by exploding fission bombs behind a massively-padded and shielded vehicle.
The strategic importance of nuclear weapons is a major reason why the technology of nuclear fission is politically sensitive. Viable fission bomb designs are, arguably, within the capabilities of many being relatively simple from an engineering viewpoint. However, the difficulty of obtaining fissile nuclear material to realize the designs, is the key to the relative unavailability of nuclear weapons to all but modern industrialized governments with special programs to produce fissile materials (see uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel cycle).
Uranium production and purification
The discovery of fission led to two potential routes to the production of fissile material for the first nuclear weapons by the United States in the 1940s.  The first involved separating uranium-235 from uranium-238 isotopes in natural uranium by gaseous diffusion.  The second path produced plutonium-239 by bombarding fertile uranium-238 in a nuclear reactor. But both approaches began with mining of uranium ore.  Today, the production of fissile fuel for nuclear power reactors uses many methods originally developed for producing nuclear weapons.  This unit addresses the metallurgy of uranium, its conversion into gaseous uranium hexafluoride required for enrichment processes, and the fabrication of fuel rods from the enriched uranium hexafluoride.  The enrichment processes are covered in a separate unit.

Uranium, the heaviest naturally occurring element, is about 500 times more prevalent than gold and about as abundant as tin.  However, it is usually found in trace concentrations.  The most common mineral containing uranium is pitchblend which is composed of UO2 in the presence of smaller amounts of UO3.  If the concentration of pitchblend is great enough for it to be extracted economically, the material is known as an ore.  Deposits containing more than 0.1% pitchblend are economically viable.  Deposits containing more than 20% pitchblend are rare.  In 2007, Canada, Australia, and Kazakhstan accounted for over half of the world’s uranium production.  The cost of uranium is determined by the concentration of uranium in the ore: the higher the concentration, the lower the cost.

The objective of uranium extraction chemistry is the preparation of U3O8, called yellowcake (Figure 1).  Extraction of uranium is often difficult, and the metallurgical procedures vary with the geological environment of the ore. Traditional methods of open pit or underground mining are used to extract uranium ore.  More recently, in situ leaching has also been used to extract and concentrate the ore.  This technique circulates oxygenated groundwater through a porous ore body to dissolve the uranium-containing compounds and bring them to the surface.

Figure 1 – Drums of Yellowcake

The ore is first crushed and ground to liberate mineral particles (Figure 2). An amphoteric oxide is then leached with sulfuric acid.

UO3(s) + 2H+(aq)   →   UO22+(aq) + H2O

UO22+(aq) + 3SO42-(aq)    →   UO2(SO4)34-(aq)
A basic oxide is converted by a similar process to the water-soluble UO2(CO3)34-(aq) ion.

Figure 2 – Preparation of Yellowcake
Preparation of yellow cake, purified U3O8(s)
(Courtesy of the Uranium Information Center)
Courtesy of the Uranium Information Center
Two methods are used to concentrate and purify the uranium: ion exchange and solvent extraction. Solvent extraction, the more common method, uses tertiary amines in an organic kerosene solvent in a continuous process.

First the amines, R3N, react with sulfuric acid:
2 R3N(org) + H2SO4(aq)   →   (R3NH)2SO4(org)

Then the amine sulfate extracts the uranyl ions into the organic phase while the impurities remain in the aqueous phase. In the case of the uranyl sulfate ion, the following reaction occurs:

(R3NH)2SO4(org) + UO2(SO4)34-(aq)    →   (R3NH)4UO2(SO4)3(org) + 2SO42-(aq)

The solvents are removed by evaporation in a vacuum, and ammonium diuranate, (NH4)2U2O7, is precipitated by adding ammonia to neutralize the solution.  The diuranate is then heated to yield solid U3O8.

Refining and converting U3O8 to UF 6
At the refinery, the yellowcake is dissolved in nitric acid.  The resulting solution of uranium nitrate, UO2(NO3)2· 6H2O, is fed into a continuous solvent extraction process.  The uranium is extracted into an organic phase (kerosene) with tributyl phosphate, and the impurities remain again in the aqueous phase.  After this purification, the uranium is washed out of the kerosene with dilute nitric acid and concentrated by evaporation to pure UO2(NO3)26H2O. Heating yields pure UO3.  The initial separation and refining processes generate large volumes of acid and organic waste.

It is necessary to enrich the U-235 isotope concentration from its natural composition of 0.7% for use as reactor fuel or weapons components.  Reactor grade uranium contains from 0.8 to 8.0% U-235, while weapons grade uranium contains more than 90% of the lighter U-235 isotope.
Because the uranium isotopes have identical chemical properties, the processes employed for enrichment must use physical techniques which take advantage of the slight differences in their masses.  The two enrichment methods used today, centrifugation and diffusion, require that the uranium be in a gaseous form, uranium hexafluoride, UF6(g).  Although enrichment involves physical processes, chemistry plays an important role in synthesizing UF6 gas and returning the UF6 enriched in U-235 to a solid, UO2.

Conversion to the hexafluoride involves the following sequence of reactions.
The UO3 is reduced with hydrogen in a kiln:

UO3(s) + H2(g) )   →   UO2(s) + H2O(g)

The uranium dioxide is then reacted with hydrogen fluoride to form uranium tetrafluoride:

UO2(s) + 4HF(g) )   →   UF4(s) + 4H2O(g)

The tetrafluoride is then fed into a fluidized bed reactor and reacted with gaseous fluorine to obtain the hexafluoride:

UF4(s) + F2(g) )   →   UF6(g)
Uranium hexafluoride is now suitable feedstock for the gaseous diffusion or centrifugation enrichment processes.
Production of uranium metal
Production of solid fuel rods from uranium hexafluoride gas enriched in U-235 requires another series of chemical and metallurgical processes (Figure 3).
Figure 3- Production of Fuel Rods from UF6
Production of Fuel Rods from UF6
Courtesy of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
The uranium hexafluoride is first reduced to uranium tetrafluoride with hydrogen.

UF6(g) + H2(g)    →   UF4(s) + 2HF(g)

Uranium metal is then produced by reducing the uranium tetrafluoride with either calcium or magnesium, both active group IIA metals that are excellent reducing agents.

UF4(s) + 2Ca(s)    →   U(s) + 2CaF2(s)

Production of uranium dioxide, often used as a reactor fuel, from uranium hexafluoride can be accomplished by the following reaction.

UF6(g) + 2H2O(g) + H2(g)    →   UO2(s) + 6HF(g)
Reactor fuel consists of ceramic pellets formed from pressed uranium oxide, which is sintered (baked) at a high temperature (over 1400°C).  The pellets are then placed in metal tubes made of a zirconium alloy or stainless steel and sealed in an atmosphere of helium to form fuel rods.  The fuel rods are then grouped in clusters to form the fuel assemblies, which are placed into the reactor core (Figure 4).  The individual rods for a pressurized water reactor (PWR) are about 1 inch in diameter and 4 meters in length.  Fuel assemblies for PWRs contain from 179 to 264 rods, and a fully fueled PRW will contain from 121 to 193 assemblies.  A PWR must be shut down for refueling.  This occurs at intervals of 1 to 2 years, when about a third of the fuel assemblies are replaced.  The spent fuel assemblies are removed to cooling pools at the reactor site.
Figure 4- Components of a Nuclear Fuel Assembly
Components of a Nuclear Fuel Assembly


Reprocessing: nuclear fuel cycles
  • The nuclear fuel cycle is the series of industrial processes which involve the production of electricity from uranium in nuclear power reactors. 
  • Uranium is a relatively common element that is found throughout the world. It is mined in a number of countries and must be processed before it can be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor. 
  • Fuel removed from a reactor, after it has reached the end of its useful life, can be reprocessed to produce new fuel. 
The various activities associated with the production of electricity from nuclear reactions are referred to collectively as the nuclear fuel cycle. The nuclear fuel cycle starts with the mining of uranium and ends with the disposal of nuclear waste. With the reprocessing of used fuel as an option for nuclear energy, the stages form a true cycle.
The Nuclear Fuel Cycle 



Uranium is a slightly radioactive metal that occurs throughout the Earth's crust (see page on Uranium and Depleted Uranium). It is about 500 times more abundant than gold and about as common as tin. It is present in most rocks and soils as well as in many rivers and in sea water. It is, for example, found in concentrations of about four parts per million (ppm) in granite, which makes up 60% of the Earth's crust. In fertilisers, uranium concentration can be as high as 400 ppm (0.04%), and some coal deposits contain uranium at concentrations greater than 100 ppm (0.01%). Most of the radioactivity associated with uranium in nature is in fact due to other minerals derived from it by radioactive decay processes, and which are left behind in mining and milling.
There are a number of areas around the world where the concentration of uranium in the ground is sufficiently high that extraction of it for use as nuclear fuel is economically feasible. Such concentrations are called ore.
Uranium mining
Both excavation and in situ techniques are used to recover uranium ore. Excavation may be underground and open pit mining.
In general, open pit mining is used where deposits are close to the surface and underground mining is used for deep deposits, typically greater than 120 m deep. Open pit mines require large holes on the surface, larger than the size of the ore deposit, since the walls of the pit must be sloped to prevent collapse. As a result, the quantity of material that must be removed in order to access the ore may be large. Underground mines have relatively small surface disturbance and the quantity of material that must be removed to access the ore is considerably less than in the case of an open pit mine. Special precautions, consisting primarily of increased ventilation, are required in underground mines to protect against airborne radiation exposure.
An increasing proportion of the world's uranium now comes from in situ leach (ISL) mining, where oxygenated groundwater is circulated through a very porous orebody to dissolve the uranium oxide and bring it to the surface. ISL may be with slightly acid or with alkaline solutions to keep the uranium in solution. The uranium oxide is then recovered from the solution as in a conventional mill.
The decision as to which mining method to use for a particular deposit is governed by the nature of the orebody, safety and economic considerations.

Uranium milling

Milling, which is generally carried out close to a uranium mine, extracts the uranium from the ore. Most mining facilities include a mill, although where mines are close together, one mill may process the ore from several mines. Milling produces a uranium oxide concentrate which is shipped from the mill. It is sometimes referred to as 'yellowcake' and generally contains more than 80% uranium. The original ore may contain as little as 0.1% uranium, or even less.
In a mill, uranium is extracted from the crushed and ground-up ore by leaching, in which either a strong acid or a strong alkaline solution is used to dissolve the uranium oxide. The uranium oxide is then precipitated and removed from the solution. After drying and usually heating it is packed in 200-litre drums as a concentrate, sometimes referred to as 'yellowcake'.
The remainder of the ore, containing most of the radioactivity and nearly all the rock material, becomes tailings, which are emplaced in engineered facilities near the mine (often in mined out pit). Tailings need to be isolated from the environment because they contain long-lived radioactive materials in low concentrations and toxic materials such as heavy metals; however, the total quantity of radioactive elements is less than in the original ore, and their collective radioactivity will be much shorter-lived.

Conversion and enrichment

The uranium oxide product of a uranium mill is not directly usable as a fuel for a nuclear reactor and additional processing is required. Only 0.7% of natural uranium is 'fissile', or capable of undergoing fission, the process by which energy is produced in a nuclear reactor. The form, or isotope, of uranium which is fissile is the uranium-235 (U-235) isotope. The remainder is uranium-238 (U-238). For most kinds of reactor, the concentration of the fissile uranium-235 isotope needs to be increased – typically to between 3.5% and 5% U-235. This is done by a process known as enrichment, which requires the uranium to be in a gaseous form. The uranium oxide concentrate is therefore first converted to uranium hexafluoride, which is a gas at relatively low temperatures.
At a conversion facility, the uranium oxide is first refined to uranium dioxide, which can be used as the fuel for those types of reactors that do not require enriched uranium. Most is then converted into uranium hexafluoride, ready for the enrichment plant. The main hazard of this stage of the fuel cycle is the use of hydrogen fluoride. The uranium hexafluoride is then drained into 14-tonne cylinders where it solidifies. These strong metal containers are shipped to the enrichment plant.
The enrichment process separates gaseous uranium hexafluoride into two streams, one being enriched to the required level and known as low-enriched uranium; the other stream is progressively depleted in U-235 and is called 'tails', or simply depleted uranium.
There are two enrichment processes in large-scale commercial use, each of which uses uranium hexafluoride gas as feed: diffusion and centrifuge. These processes both use the physical properties of molecules, specifically the 1% mass difference between the two uranium isotopes, to separate them. The last diffusion enrichment plants are likely to be phased out by 2013.
The product of this stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is enriched uranium hexafluoride, which is reconverted to produce enriched uranium oxide. Up to this point the fuel material can be considered fungible (though enrichment levels vary), but fuel fabrication involves very specific design.
Enrichment is covered in detail in the page on Uranium Enrichment.

Fuel fabrication

Reactor fuel is generally in the form of ceramic pellets. These are formed from pressed uranium oxide (UO2) which is sintered (baked) at a high temperature (over 1400°C)a. The pellets are then encased in metal tubes to form fuel rods, which are arranged into a fuel assembly ready for introduction into a reactor. The dimensions of the fuel pellets and other components of the fuel assembly are precisely controlled to ensure consistency in the characteristics of the fuel.
In a fuel fabrication plant great care is taken with the size and shape of processing vessels to avoid criticality (a limited chain reaction releasing radiation). With low-enriched fuel criticality is most unlikely, but in plants handling special fuels for research reactors this is a vital consideration.

Power generation and burn-up

Inside a nuclear reactor the nuclei of U-235 atoms split (fission) and, in the process, release energy. This energy is used to heat water and turn it into steam. The steam is used to drive a turbine connected to a generator which produces electricity. Some of the U-238 in the fuel is turned into plutonium in the reactor core. The main plutonium isotope is also fissile and this yields about one third of the energy in a typical nuclear reactor. The fissioning of uranium (and the plutonium generated in situ) is used as a source of heat in a nuclear power station in the same way that the burning of coal, gas or oil is used as a source of heat in a fossil fuel power plant.
Typically, some 44 million kilowatt-hours of electricity are produced from one tonne of natural uranium. The production of this amount of electrical power from fossil fuels would require the burning of over 20,000 tonnes of black coal or 8.5 million cubic metres of gas.
An issue in operating reactors and hence specifying the fuel for them is fuel burn-up. This is measured in gigawatt-days per tonne and its potential is proportional to the level of enrichment. Hitherto a limiting factor has been the physical robustness of fuel assemblies, and hence burn-up levels of about 40 GWd/t have required only around 4% enrichment. But with better equipment and fuel assemblies, 55 GWd/t is possible (with 5% enrichment), and 70 GWd/t is in sight, though this would require 6% enrichment. The benefit of this is that operation cycles can be longer – around 24 months – and the number of fuel assemblies discharged as used fuel can be reduced by one third. Associated fuel cycle cost is expected to be reduced by about 20%.
As with as a coal-fired power station about two thirds of the heat is dumped, either to a large volume of water (from the sea or large river, heating it a few degrees) or to a relatively smaller volume of water in cooling towers, using evaporative cooling (latent heat of vapourisation).

Used fuel

With time, the concentration of fission fragments and heavy elements formed in the same way as plutonium in the fuel will increase to the point where it is no longer practical to continue to use the fuel. So after 12-24 months the 'spent fuel' is removed from the reactor. The amount of energy that is produced from a fuel bundle varies with the type of reactor and the policy of the reactor operator.
When removed from a reactor, the fuel will be emitting both radiation, principally from the fission fragments, and heat. Used fuel is unloaded into a storage pond immediately adjacent to the reactor to allow the radiation levels to decrease. In the ponds the water shields the radiation and absorbs the heat. Used fuel is held in such pools for several months to several years. It may be transferred to ventilated dry storage on site. 
Depending on policies in particular countries, some used fuel may be transferred to central storage facilities. Ultimately, used fuel must either be reprocessed or prepared for permanent disposal.


Used fuel is about 94% U-238 but it also contains almost 1% U-235 that has not fissioned, almost 1% plutonium and 4% fission products, which are highly radioactive, with other transuranic elements formed in the reactor. In a reprocessing facility the used fuel is separated into its three components: uranium, plutonium and waste, which contains fission products. Reprocessing enables recycling of the uranium and plutonium into fresh fuel, and produces a significantly reduced amount of waste (compared with treating all used fuel as waste). See page on Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel.
According to Areva, about eight fuel assemblies reprocessed can yield one MOX fuel assembly, two-thirds of an enriched uranium fuel assembly, and about three tonnes of depleted uranium (enrichment tails) plus about 150 kg of wastes. It avoids the need to purchase about 12 tonnes of natural uranium from a mine.

Uranium and plutonium recycling

The uranium from reprocessing, which typically contains a slightly higher concentration of U-235 than occurs in nature, can be reused as fuel after conversion and enrichment.
The plutonium can be directly made into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, in which uranium and plutonium oxides are combined. In reactors that use MOX fuel, plutonium substitutes for the U-235 in normal uranium oxide fuel (see page on Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel).

Used fuel disposal

At the present time, there are no disposal facilities (as opposed to storage facilities) in operation in which used fuel, not destined for reprocessing, and the waste from reprocessing, can be placed. Although technical issues related to disposal have been addressed, there is currently no pressing technical need to establish such facilities, as the total volume of such wastes is relatively small. Further, the longer it is stored the easier it is to handle, due to the progressive diminution of radioactivity. There is also a reluctance to dispose of used fuel because it represents a significant energy resource which could be reprocessed at a later date to allow recycling of the uranium and plutonium. There is also a proposal to use it in Candu reactors directly as fuel. This proposal, known as DUPIC (direct use of used PWR fuel in Candu reactors) is covered at the end of the page on Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel.
A number of countries are carrying out studies to determine the optimum approach to the disposal of used fuel and wastes from reprocessing. The general consensus favours its placement into deep geological repositories, initially recoverable before being permanently sealed.


Wastes from the nuclear fuel cycle are categorised as high-, medium- or low-level wastes by the amount of radiation that they emit. These wastes come from a number of sources and include:
  • low-level waste produced at all stages of the fuel cycle;
  • intermediate-level waste produced during reactor operation and by reprocessing;
  • high-level waste, which is waste containing fission products from reprocessing, and in many countries, the used fuel itself.
The enrichment process leads to the production of much 'depleted' uranium, in which the concentration of U-235 is significantly less than the 0.7% found in nature. Small quantities of this material, which is primarily U-238, are used in applications where high density material is required, including radiation shielding and some is used in the production of MOX fuel. While U-238 is not fissile it is a low specific activity radioactive material and some precautions must, therefore, be taken in its storage or disposal.

Material balance in the nuclear fuel cycle

The following figures may be regarded as typical for the annual operation of a 1000 MWe nuclear power reactor:
Typically 20,000 to 400,000 tonnes of uranium ore
230 tonnes of uranium oxide concentrate (which contains 195 tonnes of uranium)
288 tonnes uranium hexafluoride, UF6 (with 195 tU)
35 tonnes enriched UF6 (containing 24 t enriched U) – balance is 'tails'
Fuel fabrication
27 tonnes UO2 (with 24 t enriched U)
Reactor operation
8760 million kWh (8.76 TWh) of electricity at full output, hence 22.3 tonnes of natural U per TWh
Used fuel
27 tonnes containing 240 kg transuranics (mainly plutonium), 23 t uranium (0.8% U-235), 1100kg fission products.

Spent fuel characteristics
spent nuclear fuel, occasionally called used nuclear fuel, is nuclear fuel that has been irradiated in a nuclear reactor (usually at a nuclear power plant). It is no longer useful in sustaining a nuclear reaction.


Nuclear reactors: types of fast breeding reactors

Fast Breeder Reactors

Under appropriate operating conditions, the neutrons given off by fission reactions can "breed" more fuel from otherwise non-fissionable isotopes. The most common breeding reaction is that of plutonium-239 from non-fissionable uranium-238. The term "fast breeder" refers to the types of configurations which can actually produce more fissionable fuel than they use, such as the LMFBR. This scenario is possible because the non-fissionable uranium-238 is 140 times more abundant than the fissionable U-235 and can be efficiently converted into Pu-239 by the neutrons from a fission chain reaction.
France has made the largest implementation of breeder reactors with its large Super-Phenix reactor and an intermediate scale reactor (BN-600) on the Caspian Sea for electric power and desalinization.

Breeding Plutonium-239

Fissionable plutonium-239 can be produced from non-fissionable uranium-238 by the reaction illustrated.
The bombardment of uranium-238 with neutrons triggers two successive beta decays with the production of plutonium. The amount of plutonium produced depends on the breeding ratio.

Plutonium Breeding Ratio

In the breeding of plutonium fuel in breeder reactors, an important concept is the breeding ratio, the amount of fissile plutonium-239 produced compared to the amount of fissionable fuel (like U-235) used to produced it. In the liquid-metal, fast-breeder reactor (LMFBR), the target breeding ratio is 1.4 but the results achieved have been about 1.2 . This is based on 2.4 neutrons produced per U-235 fission, with one neutron used to sustain the reaction.
The time required for a breeder reactor to produce enough material to fuel a second reactor is called its doubling time, and present design plans target about ten years as a doubling time. A reactor could use the heat of the reaction to produce energy for 10 years, and at the end of that time have enough fuel to fuel another reactor for 10 years.

The Super-Phenix

The Super-Phenix was the first large-scale breeder reactor. It was put into service in France in 1984. It ceased operation as a commercial power plant in 1997.
The reactor core consists of thousands of stainless steel tubes containing a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides, about 15-20% fissionable plutonium-239. Surrounding the core is a region called the breeder blanket consisting of tubes filled only with uranium oxide. The entire assembly is about 3x5 meters and is supported in a reactor vessel in molten sodium. The energy from the nuclear fission heats the sodium to about 500°C and it transfers that energy to a second sodium loop which in turn heats water to produce steam for electricity production.
This is a photo of a model of the containment vessel of the Super-Phenix. It is displayed at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and Technology in Albuquerque, NM.
Such a reactor can produce about 20% more fuel than it consumes by the breeding reaction. Enough excess fuel is produced over about 20 years to fuel another such reactor. Optimum breeding allows about 75% of the energy of the natural uranium to be used compared to 1% in the standard light water reactor .

Nuclear plant safety
Nuclear safety covers the actions taken to prevent nuclear and radiation accidents or to limit their consequences. This covers nuclear power plants as well as all other nuclear facilities, the transportation of nuclear materials, and the use and storage of nuclear materials for medical, power, industry, and military uses.
The nuclear power industry has improved the safety and performance of reactors, and has proposed new safer (but generally untested) reactor designs but there is no guarantee that the reactors will be designed, built and operated correctly. Mistakes do occur and the designers of reactors at Fukushima in Japan did not anticipate that a tsunami generated by an earthquake would disable the backup systems that were supposed to stabilize the reactor after the earthquake. According to UBS AG, the Fukushima I nuclear accidents have cast doubt on whether even an advanced economy like Japan can master nuclear safety. Catastrophic scenarios involving terrorist attacks are also conceivable. An interdisciplinary team from MIT have estimated that given the expected growth of nuclear power from 2005 – 2055, at least four serious nuclear accidents would be expected in that period.
Nuclear weapon safety, as well as the safety of military research involving nuclear materials, is generally handled by agencies different from those that oversee civilian safety, for various reasons, including secrecy.
Internationally the International Atomic Energy Agency "works with its Member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies." Some scientists say that the 2011 Japanese nuclear accidents have revealed that the nuclear industry lacks sufficient oversight, leading to renewed calls to redefine the mandate of the IAEA so that it can better police nuclear power plants worldwide. There are several problems with the IAEA says Najmedin Meshkati of University of Southern California:
It recommends safety standards, but member states are not required to comply; it promotes nuclear energy, but it also monitors nuclear use; it is the sole global organization overseeing the nuclear energy industry, yet it is also weighed down by checking compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Many nations utilizing nuclear power have special institutions overseeing and regulating nuclear safety. Civilian nuclear safety in the U.S. is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The safety of nuclear plants and materials controlled by the U.S. government for research, weapons production, and those powering naval vessels is not governed by the NRC. In the UK nuclear safety is regulated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) and the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR). The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) is the Federal Government body that monitors and identifies solar radiation and nuclear radiation risks in Australia. It is the main body dealing with ionizing and non-ionizing radiation and publishes material regarding radiation protection.

Nuclear power plant


Nuclear power plants are some of the most sophisticated and complex energy systems ever designed. Any complex system, no matter how well it is designed and engineered, cannot be deemed failure-proof. Stephanie Cooke has reported that:
The reactors themselves were enormously complex machines with an incalculable number of things that could go wrong. When that happened at Three Mile Island in 1979, another fault line in the nuclear world was exposed. One malfunction led to another, and then to a series of others, until the core of the reactor itself began to melt, and even the world's most highly trained nuclear engineers did not know how to respond. The accident revealed serious deficiencies in a system that was meant to protect public health and safety.
A fundamental issue related to complexity is that nuclear power systems have exceedingly long lifetimes. The timeframe involved from the start of construction of a commercial nuclear power station, through to the safe disposal of its last radioactive waste, may be 100 to 150 years.

Failure modes of nuclear power plants

There are concerns that a combination of human and mechanical error at a nuclear facility could result in significant harm to people and the environment:
Operating nuclear reactors contain large amounts of radioactive fission products which, if dispersed, can pose a direct radiation hazard, contaminate soil and vegetation, and be ingested by humans and animals. Human exposure at high enough levels can cause both short-term illness and death and longer-term death by cancer and other diseases.
Nuclear reactors can fail in a variety of ways. Should the instability of the nuclear material generate unexpected behavior, it may result in an uncontrolled power excursion. Normally, the cooling system in a reactor is designed to be able to handle the excess heat this causes; however, should the reactor also experience a loss-of-coolant accident, then the fuel may melt or cause the vessel it is contained in to overheat and melt. This event is called a nuclear meltdown.
After shutting down, for some time the reactor still needs external energy to power its cooling systems. Normally this energy is provided by the power grid to that the plant is connected, or by emergency diesel generators. Failure to provide power for the cooling systems, as happened in Fukushima I, can cause serious incidents.
Because the heat generated can be tremendous, immense pressure can build up in the reactor vessel, resulting in a steam explosion, which happened at Chernobyl. However, the reactor design used at Chernobyl was unique in many ways. For example, it had a large positive void coefficient, meaning a cooling failure caused reactor power to rapidly escalate. Typical reactor designs have negative void coefficients, a passively safe design. However this design may not protect from the meltdown if the cooling system is damaged.
More importantly though, the Chernobyl plant lacked a containment structure. Western reactors have this structure, which acts to contain radiation in the event of a failure. Containment structures are, by design, some of the strongest structures built by mankind. However during the serious incidents engineers may need to vent the containment intentionally as otherwise it might crack due to excess pressure.

Vulnerability of nuclear plants to attack

Nuclear power plants are generally (although not always) considered "hard" targets. In the U.S., plants are surrounded by a double row of tall fences which are electronically monitored. The plant grounds are patrolled by a sizeable force of armed guards. The NRC's "Design Basis Threat" criteria for plants is a secret, and so what size of attacking force the plants are able to protect against is unknown. However, to scram (make an emergency shutdown) a plant takes fewer than 5 seconds while unimpeded restart takes hours, severely hampering a terrorist force in a goal to release radioactivity.
Attack from the air is an issue that has been highlighted since the September 11 attacks in the U.S. However, it was in 1972 when three hijackers took control of a domestic passenger flight along the east coast of the U.S. and threatened to crash the plane into a U.S. nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The plane got as close as 8,000 feet above the site before the hijackers’ demands were met.
The most important barrier against the release of radioactivity in the event of an aircraft strike on a nuclear power plant is the containment building and its missile shield. Current NRC Chairman Dale Klein has said "Nuclear power plants are inherently robust structures that our studies show provide adequate protection in a hypothetical attack by an airplane. The NRC has also taken actions that require nuclear power plant operators to be able to manage large fires or explosions—no matter what has caused them.
In addition, supporters point to large studies carried out by the U.S. Electric Power Research Institute that tested the robustness of both reactor and waste fuel storage and found that they should be able to sustain a terrorist attack comparable to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Spent fuel is usually housed inside the plant's "protected zone" or a spent nuclear fuel shipping cask; stealing it for use in a "dirty bomb" is extremely difficult. Exposure to the intense radiation would almost certainly quickly incapacitate or kill anyone who attempts to do so.
In September 2010, analysis of the Stuxnet computer worm suggested that it was designed to sabotage a nuclear power plant. Such a cyber attack would bypass the physical safeguards in place and so the exploit demonstrates an important new vulnerability.

Plant location

In many countries, plants are often located on the coast, in order to provide a ready source of cooling water for the essential service water system. As a consequence the design needs to take the risk of flooding and tsunamis into account. Failure to calculate the risk of flooding correctly lead to a Level 2 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale during the 1999 Blayais Nuclear Power Plant flood, while flooding caused by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami lead to the Fukushima I uclear accidents.
The design of plants located in seismically active zones also requires the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis to be taken into account. Japan, India, China and the USA are among the countries to have plants in earthquake-prone regions. Damage caused to Japan's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant during the 2007 Chūetsu offshore earthquake underlined concerns expressed by experts in Japan prior to the Fukushima accidents, who have warned of a genpatsu-shinsai (domino-effect nuclear power plant earthquake disaster).

Nuclear safety systems

The three primary objectives of nuclear safety systems as defined by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are to shut down the reactor, maintain it in a shutdown condition, and prevent the release of radioactive material during events and accidents. These objectives are accomplished using a variety of equipment, which is part of different systems, of which each performs specific functions.

Hazards of nuclear material

Nuclear material may be hazardous if not properly handled or disposed of. Experiments of near critical mass-sized pieces of nuclear material can pose a risk of a criticality accident. David Hahn, "The Radioactive Boy Scout" who tried to build a nuclear reactor at home, serves as an excellent example of a nuclear experimenter who failed to develop or follow proper safety protocols. Such failures raise the specter of radioactive contamination.
Even when properly contained, fission byproducts which are no longer useful generate radioactive waste, which must be properly disposed of. Spent nuclear fuel that is recently removed from a nuclear reactor will generate large amounts of decay heat which will require pumped water cooling for a year or more to prevent overheating. In addition, material exposed to neutron radiation—present in nuclear reactors—may become radioactive in its own right, or become contaminated with nuclear waste. Additionally, toxic or dangerous chemicals may be used as part of the plant's operation, which must be properly handled and disposed of.

New nuclear technologies

The next nuclear plants to be built will likely be Generation III or III+ designs, and a few such are already in operation in Japan. Generation IV reactors would have even greater improvements in safety. These new designs are expected to be passively safe or nearly so, and perhaps even inherently safe (as in the PBMR designs).
Some improvements made (not all in all designs) are having three sets of emergency diesel generators and associated emergency core cooling systems rather than just one pair, having quench tanks (large coolant-filled tanks) above the core that open into it automatically, having a double containment (one containment building inside another), etc.
However, safety risks may be the greatest when nuclear systems are the newest, and operators have less experience with them. Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum explained that almost all serious nuclear accidents occurred with what was at the time the most recent technology. He argues that "the problem with new reactors and accidents is twofold: scenarios arise that are impossible to plan for in simulations; and humans make mistakes". As one director of a U.S. research laboratory put it, "fabrication, construction, operation, and maintenance of new reactors will face a steep learning curve: advanced technologies will have a heightened risk of accidents and mistakes. The technology may be proven, but people are not".

Safety culture and human errors

One relatively prevalent notion in discussions of nuclear safety is that of safety culture. The International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group, defines the term as “the personal dedication and accountability of all individuals engaged in any activity which has a bearing on the safety of nuclear power plants”. The goal is “to design systems that use human capabilities in appropriate ways, that protect systems from human frailties, and that protect humans from hazards associated with the system”.
At the same time, there is some evidence that operational practices are not easy to change. Operators almost never follow instructions and written procedures exactly, and “the violation of rules appears to be quite rational, given the actual workload and timing constraints under which the operators must do their job”. Many attempts to improve nuclear safety culture “were compensated by people adapting to the change in an unpredicted way”.
An assessment conducted by the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA) in France concluded that no amount of technical innovation can eliminate the risk of human-induced errors associated with the operation of nuclear power plants. Two types of mistakes were deemed most serious: errors committed during field operations, such as maintenance and testing, that can cause an accident; and human errors made during small accidents that cascade to complete failure.
According to Mycle Schneider, reactor safety depends above all on a 'culture of security', including the quality of maintenance and training, the competence of the operator and the workforce, and the rigour of regulatory oversight. So a better-designed, newer reactor is not always a safer one, and older reactors are not necessarily more dangerous than newer ones. The 1978 Three Mile Island accident in the United States occurred in a reactor that had started operation only three months earlier, and the Chernobyl disaster occurred after only two years of operation. A serious loss of coolant occurred at the French Civaux-1 reactor in 1998, less than five months after start-up.
However safe a plant is designed to be, it is operated by humans who are prone to errors. Laurent Stricker, a nuclear engineer and chairman of the World Association of Nuclear Operators says that operators must guard against complacency and avoid overconfidence. Experts say that the "largest single internal factor determining the safety of a plant is the culture of security among regulators, operators and the workforce — and creating such a culture is not easy".

Nuclear waste
Nuclear waste is the material that nuclear fuel becomes after it is used in a reactor. It looks exactly like the fuel that was loaded into the reactor -- assemblies of metal rods enclosing stacked-up ceramic pellets. But since nuclear reactions have occurred, the contents are’t quite the same. Before producing power, the fuel was mostly Uranium (or Thorium), oxygen, and steel. Afterwards, many Uranium atoms have split into various isotopes of almost all of the transition metals on your periodic table of the elements.

The waste, sometimes called spent fuel, is dangerously radioactive, and remains so for thousands of years. When it first comes out of the reactor, it is so toxic that if you stood within a few meters of it while it was unshielded, you would receive a lethal radioactive dose within a few seconds and would die of acute radiation sickness [wikipedia] within a few days. Hence all the worry about it.

In practice, the spent fuel is never unshielded. It is kept underwater (water is an excellent shield) for a few years until the radiation decays to levels that can be shielded by concrete in large storage casks. The final disposal of this spent fuel is a hot topic, and is often an argument against the use of nuclear reactors. Options include deep geologic storage and recycling. The sun would consume it nicely if we could get into space, but since rockets are so unreliable, we can’t afford to risk atmospheric dispersal on lift-off.

More technical details

Nuclear reactors are typically loaded with Uranium Oxide fuel, UO2. Neutrons are introduced to the system, and many of them are absorbed by uranium atoms, causing them to become unstable and split, or fission, into two smaller atoms known as fission products. Sometimes, the uranium absorbs a neutron and does not fission, but rather transforms to a heavier isotope of uranium, such as U-239. U-239 beta-decays to Np-239, which in turn beta-decays to Pu-239. The heavier nuclide may then absorb another neutron to become an even heavier element. These heavier atoms are known as transuranics. Nuclear waste, with regard to nuclear reactors, is the collection of nuclides left over after a reactor has extracted some energy out of nuclear fuel. Many of the isotopes are very radioactive for a very long time before they decay to stability. The radioactivity causes the spent nuclear fuel to continue emitting heat long after it has been removed from the reactor. A few of the radioactive isotopes in the mix of spent fuel are gaseous and need to be carefully contained so that they do not escape to the environment and cause radiation damage to living things. Other types of nuclear waste exist, such as low level waste from other applications. This discussion will focus on high-level waste (HLW), the spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power reactors.

Composition of nuclear waste

Spent nuclear fuel composition varies depending on what was put into the reactor, how long the reactor operated, and how long the waste has been sitting out of the reactor. A typical US reactor's waste composition is laid out in table 1. Notice that most of the Uranium is still in the fuel when it leaves the reactor, even though its enrichment has fallen significantly. This Uranium can be used in advanced fast reactors as fuel and is a valuable energy source. The minor actinides, which include Neptunium, Americium, and Curium, are very long-lived nuclides that cause serious concern when it comes to storing them for more than 100,000 years. Fortunately, these are fissionable in fast reactors and can thus be used as fuel! This still would leave us with the fission products.
When atoms split, the smaller remaining atoms are often radioactive. There is no known way of getting rid of these atoms, and geological storage is often suggested as means of storing them until they decays to stability. Some fission products, such as Strontium-90, Cesium-137, and Iodine-131, are readily absorbed by biological systems and are capable of causing serious health problems. When the Chernobyl disaster occurred, these three isotopes caused most of the concern.

How much nuclear waste does nuclear energy create?

If all the electricity use of the USA was distributed evenly among its population, and all of it came from nuclear power, then the amount of nuclear waste each person would generate per year would be 39.5 grams. That's the weight of 7 U. S. quarters of waste, per year! A detailed description of this result can be found here. If we got all our electricity from coal and natural gas, expect to have over 10,000 kilograms of CO2/yr attributed to each person, not to mention other poisonous emissions directly to the biosphere (based on EIA emissions data).
If you demand raw numbers: in 2002, there were 47,023.40 metric tonnes of high-level waste in the USA. 105,793 GW-days of thermal energy has been produced by nuclear power plants throughout the years to create that waste. Also in 2002, operating reactors added 2,407.20 metric tonnes [1] (1 metric tonne = 1000 kg).

Minor Actinides
Fission products
Table 1. Heavy metal composition of 4.2% enriched nuclear fuel before and after running for about 3 years (40,000 MWD/MT). Minor actinides include neptunium, americium, and curium. This table does not include structural material such as zirconium and stainless steel.
Nuclear waste radioactivity vs. time
Figure 1. A busy chart of the activity of all the radioactive nuclides as a function of time up to 1 million years from 1 MT of nuclear waste, burned to 45 MWd/kg. Click for a larger view. Data was computed on the most recent version of ORIGEN-S from Oak Ridge by
If nuclear waste looked like quarters, this is how much each American would generate per year.
Figure 2. If all electricity was generated by nuclear power, every American would generate a weight equivalent to 7 quarters of waste per year.

What to do with nuclear waste (recycle it!)

Current US policy

Currently, nuclear waste created in the US is stored underwater in spent fuel pools near nuclear power plants. Assuming the DOE eventually licenses the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, this waste will eventually be stored deep underground. Since Yucca Mountain is on the Nevada test site, and since the area is geologically stable, the location is suitable. However, the repository is designed to a certain capacity of nuclear waste. If it ever opens, it will fill quickly thanks to the build-up of waste throughout the last few decades and another repository will need to be constructed. However, there are ways around this.

Recycling nuclear waste

See our main recycling page for more info
As mentioned previously, nuclear waste is over 90% uranium. Thus, the spent fuel (waste) still contains 90% usable fuel! It can be chemically processed and placed in advanced fast reactors (which have not been deployed on any major scale yet) to close the fuel cycle. A closed fuel cycle means much less nuclear waste and much more energy extracted from the raw ore.
France and Japan currently recycle spent fuel with great success, although they only recycle one time before disposal. The US had a recycling program that was shut down because it created Plutonium, which is arguably the easiest material with which to make a nuclear weapon. Were some plutonium diverted in the recycling process, a non-nuclear entity could be one step close to building a bomb.
The longest living nuclides in nuclear waste are the ones that can be used as fuel: plutonium and the minor actinides. If these materials are burnt in fuel through recycling, nuclear waste would only remain radioactive for a few hundred years, as opposed to a few hundred thousand. This significantly reduces concerns with long-term storage.


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