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August 16 2015


Depleted Uranium And The Future Of Nuclear Fuel

Many uranium-mining companies are continuously producing uranium for use in power production, due to the ever-rising demand for electricity in industrial and domestic sectors. Uranium is one of the best options when it comes to power production. 1kg of Uranium can produce up to 50,000 kw of electricity, with no by-products such as greenhouse gases that could harm the environment. The power produced from uranium is cheap, safe, and clean.

Future generations may mostly rely on uranium for energy since the non-renewable sources are constantly losing their existence and are about to vanish from our planet. In this case, the only option for the future generations is relying on the renewable sources such as uranium. There are many uranium mining projects from all over the world, for increased production of uranium since the world is gradually heading towards the utilization of uranium for electricity production.

The other major use of uranium besides power production is the high density penetrators usually in the defense sector. For this purpose, depleted uranium is usually used to transport or store radioactive materials. In addition, it can also be used in gyroscopic compasses, aircraft control surfaces, as well as inertial guidance systems.

Much of the depleted uranium usually arise from the production of high quality enriched uranium as a by-product in the process. The enriched uranium is meant for use in the manufacture of nuclear weapons and as fuel in nuclear reactors. The enrichment process usually generate a type of uranium with a much higher than natural concentration of uranium isotopes with lower mass number. The bulk of the feed usually ends up as depleted uranium.

Depleted uranium from the enrichment process is in a chemically reactive form (UF6) which cannot be disposed without chemically treating it. In this case, it must be stored perpetually in huge steel drums, and has to be de-converted into non-reactive solids, so that it can be safely disposed in landfills. However, historically, there has never been any economic incentive to de-convert the depleted UF6, with the most of UF6 produced on U.S soil stored on a perpetual basis since the 1950’s.

Fortunately, there is a new type of de-conversion process referred to as the Fluorine Extraction Process (FEP). The process is aimed at extracting high purity fluorine compounds that are normally present in the depleted uranium during the process. This allows for the creation of new and useful products in the process. In this case, an economic incentive has been created for the de-conversion of the UF6.

Compared to the natural uranium, depleted uranium (DU) normally emits less alpha radiation. The depleted uranium from nuclear reprocessing usually has dissimilar isotopic ratios due to the enrichment by product. The DU that is used in the US munitions has about 60% the natural radioactivity of uranium. The use of DU is in many cases controversial since there many concerns on its long term health effects. <!--td {border: 1px solid #ccc;}br {mso-data-placement:same-cell;}--> Take a better look at disposal of DP.

Exposure to the toxic metal, uranium, may cause alterations to the normal functioning of the human body systems including those of the kidney, heart, liver, brain, and other systems. Aerosol as well as spallation frangible of powder that are produced from the combustion and the impact of depleted uranium munitions could potentially lead to contamination of vast areas around the impact site, which could lead to possible inhalations by man.

Depleted uranium is a rather good material as it usually has a high density, and it is at the same time very strong and hard, but not close to brittle. In this case, the material has excellent penetration properties. In addition, its fragments will burn after penetration and cause secondary damage to the target, leading to a much higher kill probability.

The depleted UF6 has been continually stored in steel cylinders and in the U.S, there is more than 1.7 billion pounds of UF6 in existence. Also notably, the generation of depleted UF6 in other countries outside the U.S. is estimated to exceed 250 million pounds a year.

 Presently, there are several companies that have announced that they will be planning, evaluating, and building new uranium enrichment facilities in the U.S. the completion of these facilities might see a production of an estimated 80 million pounds of depleted UF6 per year, at their stated initial capacity. The proper management as well as storage of the depleted UF6 has and will continue to be an important issue that confronts the nuclear industry.

The newly patented de-conversion process, the Fluorine Extraction Process (FEP) can process the depleted uranium into a form that is more conducive for long term storage and safe disposal. At the same time, the extraction of fluoride from the UF6 can lead to the creation of commercial products. This can be done in a more efficient manner such that it will save the emission CO2 in millions of pounds, when compared to the production of these fluoride products using the conventional means.

The Fluorine Extraction Process can also be used in the production of a wide variety of fluoride gases such as germanium tetrafluoride (GeF4), boron trifluoride (BF3), Silicon tetrafluoride (SiF4), and possibly others. These gases usually have an ever increasing demand from chemical vapor disposition processes in micro electronic components, ion implantations, solar energy applications, etchants, as well as organic complexes in the petroleum industry.

The FEP process is therefore a win-win situation. The depleted uranium is essentially de-converted for storage and safe disposal, while at the same time, valuable fluorine gases and fluoride products are produced in the process. There is an economic incentive here, with the multiple beneficial effects on both the environment and the industry as a whole.

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