Management of Depleted Uranium: From Storage to Disposal

nuclear power plants

nuclear power plantsMost nuclear power plants today operate through low-enriched uranium. The by-product of this enrichment process is called depleted uranium, an element that has a  lower content of the fissile isotope U-235 than natural uranium.

Depleted uranium has adverse effects on health and the environment. Studies show that exposure to the material may cause severe impairment to the body, particularly the kidney and lungs. In terms of environmental impact, the chemical can contaminate the ground surface, which may severely affect safety of food and ground water.

Because of these risks associated with depleted uranium to the public and the environment, there’s a need for industries to responsibly manage radioactive wastes. This includes proper depleted uranium disposal; Utah and other strategic sites have approved disposal facilities for such needs.

Storage of Depleted Uranium

The primary storage of depleted uranium is enrichment facilities; the chemical is in the form of uranium hexafluoride (DUF6). DUF6 is usually stored in 14-ton cylinders near enrichment facilities. When processed, they may serve commercial purposes. They may be used for counterweights in aircrafts, shielding in radiation therapy or containers used in shipping radioactive elements.

Disposal of Depleted Uranium

The process of disposal, on the other hand, involves a method called “deconversion.” The process chemically extracts the fluoride from depleted uranium kept in the cylinders. The result is stable compounds known as uranium oxides, chemicals suitable for disposing radioactive wastes.

There are many disposal facility options; organizations may transport the material to the U.S. Department of Energy or to commercial disposal sites, as long as the depleted uranium satisfies the requirements of the facility.

Deconversion carries many risks, which is why it is important to work with experts on these endeavors. Uranium is a heavy metal, which, when ingested, may cause severe damage to the kidneys. Fluoride compounds involved in the deconversion process are also corrosive, especially hydrogen fluoride. When inhaled, the chemical will greatly affect health.

The risks associated with depleted uranium present the need for proper management of wastes. It is important to work with experts to ensure safe storage and disposal.