depleted uranium

CG: n

CT: In some countries used fuel is reprocessed to recover its uranium and plutonium, and to reduce the final volume of high-level wastes. The plutonium is normally recycled promptly into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, by mixing it with depleted uranium.
Where uranium recovered from reprocessing used nuclear fuel (RepU) is to be re-used, it needs to be converted and re-enriched. This is complicated by the presence of impurities and two new isotopes in particular: U-232 and U-236, which are formed by or following neutron capture in the reactor, and increase with higher burn-up levels. U-232 is largely a decay product of Pu-236, and increases with storage time in used fuel, peaking at about ten years. Both decay much more rapidly than U-235 and U-238, and one of the daughter products of U-232 emits very strong gamma radiation, which means that shielding is necessary in any plant handling material with more than very small traces of it. U-236 is a neutron absorber which impedes the chain reaction, and means that a higher level of U-235 enrichment is required in the product to compensate. For the Dutch Borssele reactor which normally uses 4.4% enriched fuel, compensated enriched reprocessed uranium (c-ERU) is 4.6% enriched to compensate for U-236. Being lighter, both isotopes tend to concentrate in the enriched (rather than depleted) output, so reprocessed uranium which is re-enriched for fuel must be segregated from enriched fresh uranium. The presence of U-236 in particular means that most reprocessed uranium can be recycled only once – the main exception being in the UK with AGR fuel made from recycled Magnox uranium being reprocessed. U-234 is also present in RepU, but as an alpha emitter it does not pose extra problems. Traces of some fission products such as Tc-99 may also carry over.

S: (last access: 6 December 2015)

N: 1. depleted (adj): from deplete (v). 1807, back-formation from depletion.
uranium (n): rare metallic element, 1797, named 1789 in Modern Latin by its discoverer, German chemist and mineralogist Martin Heinrich Klaproth (1743-1817), for the recently found planet Uranus.
2. Dense mildly radioactive metal that is primarily used in the production of ammunition and armour plating. Depleted uranium is created as a waste product when the radioactive isotope uranium-235 is extracted from natural uranium ore.
Because uranium-235 is used as a fuel in nuclear power plants and in the production of some nuclear weapons, depleted uranium, a by-product of the uranium-enrichment process, is plentiful. It is also extremely costly to dispose of because of its radioactivity
3. Uses of depleted uranium:

  • Depleted uranium has a number of peaceful applications: counterweights or ballast in aircraft, radiation shields in medical equipment used for radiation therapy and containers for the transport of radioactive materials.
  • Due to its high density, which is about twice that of lead, and other physical properties, depleted uranium is used in munitions designed to penetrate armour plate. It also reinforces military vehicles, such as tanks.

4. Uranium and depleted uranium:
Uranium was discovered by Martin Klaproth, a German chemist, in 1789 in the mineral pitchblende, and was named after the planet Uranus. It occurs in most rocks in concentrations of 2 to 4 parts per million and is as common in the Earth’s crust as tin, tungsten and molybdenum and about 40 times as common as silver. Being relatively soluble (in contrast to thorium), it is also found in the oceans, at an average concentration of 3 parts per billion. There are a number of locations in different parts of the world where it occurs in economically-recoverable concentrations. When mined, it yields a mixed uranium oxide product, U3O8. Uraninite, or pitchblende, is the most common uranium mineral.
In the past, uranium was also used to colour glass (from as early as 79 AD) and deposits were once mined in order to obtain its decay product, radium. This element was used in luminous paint, particularly on the dials of watches and aircraft instruments up to the 1950s, and in medicine for the treatment of disease.
For many years from the 1940s, virtually all of the uranium that was mined was used in the production of nuclear weapons, but this ceased to be the case in the 1970s. Today the only substantial use for uranium is as fuel in nuclear reactors, mostly for electricity generation. Uranium-235 is the only naturally-occurring material which can sustain a fission chain reaction, releasing large amounts of energy.
While nuclear power is the predominant use of uranium, heat from nuclear fission can be used for industrial processes. It is also used for marine propulsion (mostly naval). And small nuclear reactors are important for making radioisotopes.
Every tonne of natural uranium produced and enriched for use in a nuclear reactor gives about 130 kg of enriched fuel (3.5% or more U-235). The balance is depleted uranium tails (U-238, typically with 0.25-0.30% U-235). This major portion has been depleted in its fissile U-235 isotope (and, incidentally, U-234) by the enrichment process. It is commonly known as DU if the focus is on the actual material, or enrichment tails if the focus is on its place in the fuel cycle and its U-235 assay.
5. Health aspects of depleted uranium:
Depleted uranium is not classified as a dangerous substance radiologically, though it is a potential hazard in large quantities, beyond what could conceivably be breathed. Its emissions are very low, since the half-life of U-238 is the same as the age of the Earth (4.5 billion years). There are no reputable reports of cancer or other negative health effects from radiation exposure to ingested or inhaled natural or depleted uranium, despite much study.
However, uranium does have a chemical toxicity about the same as that of lead, so inhaled fume or ingested oxide is considered a health hazard. Most uranium actually absorbed into the body is excreted within days, the balance being laid down in bone and kidneys. Its biological effect is principally kidney damage. The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a tolerable daily intake level for uranium of 0.6 microgram/kg body weight, orally. (This is about eight times our normal background intake from natural sources.) Standards for drinking water and concentrations in air are set accordingly.
Like most radionuclides, it is not known as a carcinogen, or to cause birth defects (from effects in utero) or to cause genetic mutations. Radiation from DU munitions depends on how long since the uranium has been separated from the lighter isotopes so that its decay products start to build up. Decay of U-238 gives rise to Th-234, Pa-234 (beta emitters) and U-234 (an alpha emitter)m.
6. depleted uranium: term standardized by ISO.

S: 1. OED – (last access: 4 December 2015). 2. EncBrit – (last access: 4 December 2015). 3. WHO – (last access: 4 December 2015). 4 & 5. WNA – (last access: 4 December 2015). 6. TERMIUM PLUS (last access: 6 December 2015).


CR: enriched uranium, natural uranium, nuclear energy, radioactive waste, uranium.