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FACTBOX: What is uranium enrichment?

(Reuters) - Iran announced plans on Sunday to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants in a major expansion of its nuclear program, a clear show of defiance after the U.N. nuclear watchdog rebuked Tehran over secret such work.

Here are some details about the process:


-- Enrichment is a process of increasing the proportion of fissile isotope found in uranium ore (represented by the symbol ‘U’) to make it usable as nuclear fuel or the compressed, explosive core of nuclear weapons.


-- Uranium is found naturally in a variety of forms but only a particular adapted form of the mineral can be used to create electricity or explosives.

-- This type, called U-235 to represent its mass, is present in only about 0.7 percent of mined ore while most of the rest is U-238, which has a slightly heavier mass.

-- To generate electricity, the concentration of U-235 must be increased to between 3 and 5 percent. It must be refined to levels over 80 percent to create the core of an atom bomb.


-- The two most popular production techniques require uranium ore, known as “yellow cake,” to be converted into a gas called uranium hexafluoride (UF-6) before enrichment.

DIFFUSION METHOD: When gaseous uranium is pumped through a porous barrier, the lighter U-235 atoms traverse the pores at a quicker rate than U-238. This is like smaller grains of sand passing through a sieve quicker than the bigger ones. The process has to be repeated about 1,400 times to get U-235 at a concentration of 3 percent of the UF-6.

CENTRIFUGE METHOD: Like the diffusion process, the centrifuge method exploits the slight difference in mass between U-235 and U-238. Uranium gas is fed into a cylindrical centrifuge. It spins at supersonic speeds, causing the heavier U-238 to move toward the cylinder’s outer edge while U-235 collects around the center. Enriched U-235 is removed and put through the same process many times to raise its concentration.

-- Around 1,500 centrifuges running non-stop for months would be needed to make the 20 kg (45 pounds) of highly-enriched uranium needed for one crude warhead.

Sources: Reuters/ Uranium Information Center Nuclear Policy Research Institute