Nuclear weapons and Iran's uranium enrichment program: 4 questions answered
Posted by admin on 18th June 2019
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Editor’s note: Iranian leaders have threatened to withdraw from a 2015 agreement that limits their nation’s nuclear activities. Under the deal, the United States and five other world powers lifted economic sanctions they had imposed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But President Trump removed the U.S. from the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions.

Miles Pomper, a senior fellow at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, explains one of the key activities that the Iran deal covers – uranium enrichment – and why it is central to both peaceful nuclear energy programs and building nuclear weapons.

1. What is uranium enrichment?

Uranium can fuel nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs because some of its isotopes, or atomic forms, are fissile: Their atoms can be easily split to release energy.

Freshly mined uranium contains more than 99% of an isotope called uranium 238, which is not fissile, plus a tiny fraction of uranium 235, which is fissile. Enrichment is an industrial process to increase the proportion of U-235. It’s usually done by passing uranium gas through devices called centrifuges, which rotate at high speeds. This process sifts out U-235, which is lighter than U-238.

Commercial nuclear power plants run on low-enriched uranium fuel, which contains 3-5% U-235. Further processing can produce highly enriched uranium, which contains more than 20% U-235.

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