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. Enrichment at heart of Iran nuclear programme
PARIS, April 10 (AFP) Apr 10, 2009
Enriching uranium so that it can be used for nuclear power -- or building a weapon of mass destruction -- lies at the heart of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear programme.

The point of enrichment is to boost the ratio in uranium of the uranium-235 isotope, which splits in a chain reaction and releases energy.

Enriching the uranium to the point where it comprises three to five percent of uranium-235 enables engineers to make fuel for a nuclear reactor, which requires a slow, controllable chain reaction.

But by boosting the U-235 to 90 percent or more, engineers can make the material for a nuclear bomb, which needs a very fast, violent fissile process.

The enrichment method used by Iran is a classic type in which uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas is whizzed around in a centrifuge at very high speeds.

A different isotope of uranium, called uranium-238, is separated from the mass by this centrifugal force.

Because it is slightly denser than U-235, the U-238 gathers at the bottom of the chamber and can thus be extracted.

The lighter atoms with the precious U-235 isotope are then collected and put into another centrifuge, and the process is repeated again and again, in a so-called cascade, in order to boost the proportion of fissile atoms.

The process is long because only 0.7 percent of naturally-occurring uranium atoms are U-235, and the remainder are all U-238. The collected U-238 can be used in "depleted uranium" weapons, providing a heavy slug for armour-piercing shells.

When the desired enrichment level is reached, the gas is converted by chemical process to a uranium oxide (UO2) which is used as fuel pellets for a nuclear reactor.

If a bomb is sought, highly enriched oxide is engineered into ingots of uranium metal.

But for a bomb to work, there has to be enough material to generate a critical mass that sustains the chain reaction.

The bomb-maker also has to master the key technologies of shaping the charge and controlling the detonation sequence so that critical mass actually happens, rather than fizzes out, and occurs at the desired time rather than prematurely or accidentally.

Iran is under suspicion by Washington and other nations of wanting to build a nuclear bomb. It replies that its programme is only for peaceful purposes.

On Thursday, Iran said it had gained the ability to manufacture nuclear fuel, with the installation of around 7,000 centrifuges. The claim was viewed skeptically by the United States.

Iran also said it was testing two kinds of new centrifuges with "greater capacity" for enrichment than existing ones.

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