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Enriching Uranium

Enriching uranium increases the proportion of uranium atoms that can be "split" by fission to release energy (usually in the form of heat) that can be used to produce electricity. Not all uranium atoms are the same. When uranium is mined, it consists of about 99.3% uranium-238 or U-238 (U238), 0.7% uranium-235 or U-235 (U235), and < 0.01% uranium-234 or U-234 (U234). These are the different isotopes of uranium, which means that while they all contain 92 protons in the atom’s center, or nucleus (which is what makes it uranium), the U238 atoms contain 146 neutrons, the U235 atoms contain 143 neutrons, and the U234 atoms contain only 142 neutrons. (The total number of protons plus neutrons gives the atomic mass of each isotope — that is, 238, 235, or 234, respectively.)

The fuel for nuclear reactors has to have a higher concentration of U235 than exists in natural uranium ore. This is because U235 is "fissionable," meaning that it starts a nuclear reaction and keeps it going. Normally, the amount of the U235 isotope is enriched from 0.7% of the uranium mass to about 5%, as illustrated in this diagram PDF Icon of the enrichment process.

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