SEP 10, 2017 6:00 AM PDT

LEU Bank - the uranium fuel reserve the whole world can bank on

WRITTEN BY: Daniel Duan

IAEA LEU Bank. Credit: IAEA

Most of us know that uranium is the isotope that fuels nuclear fission reactors. But no atomic energy is released if you just shuffle piles of uranium bearing rocks into the power plant. To understand how raw uranium materials get processed and become a source of power, let us start at the beginning.

Uranium-238, the most abundant form of the isotope (99.3% of all uranium) is not suitable for nuclear fission because it isn’t fissile. Uranium-235 (U-235), on the other hand, can start a nuclear reaction and sustain it, but not at its natural abundance of 0.7%. A power plant requires uranium with 3-4 % of U-235, also known as low-enriched uranium (LEU). An atomic bomb needs uranium with as high as 90% purity, highly enriched uranium.

Uranium enrichment just like its name suggests is a process to increase the proportion of U-235 in a uranium sample. The most common method for enriching uranium nowadays is centrifugation. Highly enriched weapons-grade uranium, though expensive and difficult to obtain, is never a big enough barrier for countries that seek to build their nuclear inventories. Power-plant enrichment facilities with hundreds if not thousands of centrifuges are often under the scrutiny of international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), because they can be repurposed to make atomic bombs instead of simply purifying reactor fuel.

Despite the recent gloomy atmosphere of potential nuclear warfare, this August the world welcomed a first-of-its-kind uranium reserve operated by the IAEA, a shining symbol for the peaceful utilization of nuclear technology and international collaboration on atomic energy.

Located in Oskemen, a city in northeastern Kazakhstan, the IAEA Low-Enriched Uranium Bank is a flagship project launched by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Its mandate is to guarantee all UN members access to uranium fuel for power and research purposes, as long as they fulfill their non-proliferation obligations.

The bank provides an important option for countries that want the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy without spending money (as it could be extremely expensive) on uranium enrichment capabilities. Ninety metric tons of LEU will be deposited in the reserve, enough to produce power for a large city for up to three years.

Since the bank is owned and managed by the IAEA and not an individual country, nations that request fuel will have to comply with the IAEA’s non-proliferation policy. With such a uranium fuel reserve in place, countries can have full confidence that they can secure supplies even when market-based materials become unavailable due to conflicts or other factors. Under the monitoring eyes of the IAEA, the requesting nations will have to make the responsible choice not to develop enrichment capabilities on their own.

Even though it is just a small step in the pursuit of nuclear non-proliferation, IAEA and other funding organizations hope that the LEU bank can serve as a safe and reliable option for countries that are in pursuit of the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Source:

IAEA

About the Author
  • Graduated with a bachelor degree in Pharmaceutical Science and a master degree in neuropharmacology, Daniel is a radiopharmaceutical and radiobiology expert based in Ottawa, Canada. With years of experience in biomedical R&D, Daniel is very into writing. He is constantly fascinated by what's happening in the world of science. He hopes to capture the public's interest and promote scientific literacy with his trending news articles. The recurring topics in his Chemistry & Physics trending news section include alternative energy, material science, theoretical physics, medical imaging, and green chemistry.
You May Also Like
APR 01, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
Analyzing nitrogen dioxide with deep learning
APR 01, 2021
Analyzing nitrogen dioxide with deep learning
Researchers from Penn State are looking to deep learning to act as a method for improving air quality predictions. The r ...
MAY 20, 2021
Microbiology
Sneaky Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Duped Curious Academics
MAY 20, 2021
Sneaky Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Duped Curious Academics
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek is a well-known pioneer in the field of microscopy. His research was so advanced, it took about 1 ...
MAY 22, 2021
Plants & Animals
This Lizard Blows Bubbles to Breathe Underwater
MAY 22, 2021
This Lizard Blows Bubbles to Breathe Underwater
Scientists say it's the biological version of the rebreathers than human divers use to conserve and recycle their oxygen ...
MAY 19, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
Novel system hopes to prevent nuclear terrorism
MAY 19, 2021
Novel system hopes to prevent nuclear terrorism
A study published in both Science Advances and Science describes a new technology called the Neutron-Gamma Emission Tomo ...
MAY 27, 2021
Neuroscience
Research Less Likely to Be True is Cited More
MAY 27, 2021
Research Less Likely to Be True is Cited More
Researchers from the University of California San Diego have found that non-replicable data is cited 153 times more ofte ...
JUN 07, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
Are compostable batteries on the horizon?
JUN 07, 2021
Are compostable batteries on the horizon?
Biodegradable batteries represent the holy grail of our current technological obstacles to achieving the transition to a ...
Loading Comments...