Common nuclear buzzwords that you should know about.


Perhaps the most used buzzword in the news is nuclear enrichment. But what is enrichment? In nature, many elements are made up of several isotopes. Isotopes of the same element have the same number of protons, but different numbers of neutrons. For instance, Oxygen is made up of 99.76% O-16 (with 8 protons and 8 neutrons), 0.04% O-17 (8 protons, 9 neutrons), and 0.20% O-18 (8 protons, 10 neutrons). Chemically, isotopes act just like their elements. But their nuclear properties can vary by quite a bit. In Uranium, the difference between the nuclear properties of the isotopes is the key to understanding enrichment.

Natural Uranium is made up of 99.2745% U-238 and 0.720% U-235, with trace amounts of U-234. While U-238 usually stays together in a neutron field, U-235 readily splits, or fissions, in the presence of neutrons, releasing huge amounts of energy. This energy runs nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons alike. To create a chain reaction, you must enrich natural Uranium to contain more U-235. A typical nuclear reactor requires about 3.5% U-235, whereas a nuclear weapon requires more than 90% U-235. See figure below.

Enrichment is a very difficult process, as the mass difference between each isotope is minuscule. The US developed enrichment at Oak Ridge during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project. The newsworthy item about it is that anyone who can enrich can create highly-enriched uranium, a good material with which to make nuclear weapons. Countries that want to have their own nuclear fuel manufacturing capabilities argue that they need enrichment plants, but opponents argue that they are just looking to produce nuclear weapons.

Pie charts of different uranium enrichments

The UN Nuclear Watchdog

Any story about weapons inspectors and the UN watchdog is referring to the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency based in Vienna, Austria. Among many other things, the IAEA inspects world nuclear facilities to ensure compliance with proliferation treaties. The Wikipedia article has more details, as does the official IAEA site.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy generally refers to the several forms of solar power, including direct solar, wind, hydro, and biomass. It is called renewable because the sun is always replenishing the energy at the rate at which it is used, as opposed to fossil fuels which take thousands of years to form. Geothermal power is also considered renewable.

Nuclear power is generally not referred to as renewable, and we have our opinions about this. It seems that the phrase, renewable energy, was coined specifically to exclude nuclear energy. What we need as a society is sustainable energy - energy that will allow us to live in harmony with the environment for, effectively, ever. What is the one energy source that is sustainable but not considered renewable? Nuclear energy. Hence, the term renewable was fabricated specifically to exclude the nukes. Unfortunately, this fabrication has worked and we are busy building coal plants around the world. Sustainable is the operative word. Renewable means nothing if it fails to sustain humanity. We should become sustainable. Please contact us with your comments or questions.