How is depleted uranium produced?
Depleted uranium is produced during the uranium enrichment process. In the United States, uranium is enriched through the gaseous diffusion process in which the compound uranium hexafluoride (UF6) is heated and converted from a solid to a gas. The gas is then forced through a series of compressors and converters that contain porous barriers. Because uranium-235 has a slightly lighter isotopic mass than uranium-238, UF6 molecules made with uranium-235 diffuse through the barriers at a slightly higher rate than the molecules containing uranium-238. At the end of the process, there are two UF6 streams, with one stream having a higher concentration of uranium-235 than the other. The stream having the greater uranium-235 concentration is referred to as enriched UF6, while the stream that is reduced in its concentration of uranium-235 is referred to as depleted UF6. The depleted UF6 can be converted to other chemical forms, such as depleted uranium oxide or depleted uranium metal.
Most of the depleted UF6 produced in the United States is stored at the locations where it was produced as a product of the gaseous diffusion enrichment process. These locations are the gaseous diffusion plants near Paducah, Kentucky, and Portsmouth, Ohio, and at the East Tennessee Technology Park (formerly the K-25 Site) at the Oak Ridge Reservation in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
In addition to gaseous diffusion, other methods can be used to enrich uranium, producing depleted uranium as a by-product. The most common enrichment process used outside of the United States is gas centrifuge enrichment. Laser-based enrichment processes are also under development.
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