Uranium as it is taken directly from the Earth is not suitable as fuel for most nuclear reactors and requires additional processes to make it usable. Uranium is mined either underground or in an open pit depending on the depth at which it is found. After the uranium ore is mined, it must go through a milling process to extract the uranium from the ore.
This is accomplished by a combination of chemical processes with the end product being concentrated uranium oxide, which is known as "yellowcake", contains roughly 60% uranium whereas the ore typically contains less than 1% uranium and as little as 0.1% uranium.
After the milling process is complete, the uranium must next undergo a process of conversion, "to either uranium dioxide, which can be used as the fuel for those types of reactors that do not require enriched uranium, or into uranium hexafluoride, which can be enriched to produce fuel for the majority of types of reactors". Naturally-occurring uranium is made of a mixture of 235U and 238U. The 235U is fissile, meaning it is easily split with neutrons while the remainder is 238U, but in nature, more than 99% of the extracted ore is 238U. Most nuclear reactors require enriched uranium, which is uranium with higher concentrations of 235U ranging between 3.5% and 4.5%. There are two commercial enrichment processes: gaseous diffusion and gas centrifugation. Both enrichment processes involve the use of uranium hexafluoride and produce enriched uranium oxide.
A drum of yellowcake
(a mixture of uranium precipitates)
Reprocessed uranium (RepU)
Reprocessed uranium (RepU) is a product of nuclear fuel cycles involving nuclear reprocessing of spent fuel. RepU recovered from light water reactor (LWR) spent fuel typically contains slightly more 235U than natural uranium, and therefore could be used to fuel reactors that customarily use natural uranium as fuel, such as CANDU reactors. It also contains the undesirable isotope uranium-236, which undergoes neutron capture, wasting neutrons (and requiring higher 235U enrichment) and creating neptunium-237, which would be one of the more mobile and troublesome radionuclides in deep geological repository disposal of nuclear waste.
Low enriched uranium (LEU)
Low enriched uranium (LEU) has a lower than 20% concentration of 235U; for instance, in commercial light water reactors (LWR), the most prevalent power reactors in the world, uranium is enriched to 3 to 5% 235U. Fresh LEU used in research reactors is usually enriched 12% to 19.75% 235U, the latter concentration being used to replace HEU fuels when converting to LEU.
Highly enriched uranium (HEU)
of highly enriched uranium metal
Highly enriched uranium (HEU) has a 20% or higher concentration of 235U. The fissile uranium in nuclear weapon primaries usually contains 85% or more of 235U known as weapons-grade, though theoretically for an implosion design, a minimum of 20% could be sufficient (called weapon(s)-usable) although it would require hundreds of kilograms of material and "would not be practical to design"; even lower enrichment is hypothetically possible, but as the enrichment percentage decreases the critical mass for unmoderated fast neutrons rapidly increases, with for example, an infinite mass of 5.4% 235U being required. For criticality experiments, enrichment of uranium to over 97% has been accomplished.
The very first uranium bomb, Little Boy, dropped by the United States on Hiroshima in 1945, used 64 kilograms of 80% enriched uranium. Wrapping the weapon's fissile core in a neutron reflector (which is standard on all nuclear explosives) can dramatically reduce the critical mass. Because the core was surrounded by a good neutron reflector, at explosion it comprised almost 2.5 critical masses. Neutron reflectors, compressing the fissile core via implosion, fusion boosting, and "tamping", which slows the expansion of the fissioning core with inertia, allow nuclear weapon designs that use less than what would be one bare-sphere critical mass at normal density. The presence of too much of the 238U isotope inhibits the runaway nuclear chain reaction that is responsible for the weapon's power. The critical mass for 85% highly enriched uranium is about 50 kilograms (110 lb), which at normal density would be a sphere about 17 centimetres (6.7 in) in diameter.
Later US nuclear weapons usually use plutonium-239 in the primary stage, but the jacket or tamper secondary stage, which is compressed by the primary nuclear explosion often uses HEU with enrichment between 40% and 80%
along with the fusion fuel lithium deuteride. For the secondary of a large nuclear weapon, the higher critical mass of less-enriched uranium can be an advantage as it allows the core at explosion time to contain a larger amount of fuel. The 238U is not fissile but still fissionable by fusion neutrons.
HEU is also used in fast neutron reactors, whose cores require about 20% or more of fissile material, as well as in naval reactors, where it often contains at least 50% 235U, but typically does not exceed 90%. The Fermi-1 commercial fast reactor prototype used HEU with 26.5% 235U. Significant quantities of HEU are used in the production of medical isotopes, for example molybdenum-99 for technetium-99m generators.