Nuclear fuel consists of a fissionable isotope, such as uranium-235, which must be present in sufficient quantity to provide a self-sustaining chain reaction. In the United States, uranium ores contain from 0.05–0.3% of the uranium oxide U3O8; the uranium in the ore is about 99.3% nonfissionable U-238 with only 0.7% fissionable U-235.
Nuclear reactors require a fuel with a higher concentration of U-235 than is found in nature; it is normally enriched to have about 5% of uranium mass as U-235. At this concentration, it is not possible to achieve the supercritical mass necessary for a nuclear explosion. Uranium can be enriched by gaseous diffusion (the only method currently used in the US), using a gas centrifuge, or by laser separation.
In the gaseous diffusion enrichment plant where U-235 fuel is prepared, UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) gas at low pressure moves through barriers that have holes just barely large enough for UF6 to pass through. The slightly lighter 235UF6 molecules diffuse through the barrier slightly faster than the heavier 238UF6 molecules. This process is repeated through hundreds of barriers, gradually increasing the concentration of 235UF6 to the level needed by the nuclear reactor.
The basis for this process, Graham’s law, is described in the tutorial on gases. The enriched UF6 gas is collected, cooled until it solidifies, and then taken to a fabrication facility where it is made into fuel assemblies. Each fuel assembly consists of fuel rods that contain many thimble-sized, ceramic-encased, enriched uranium (usually UO2) fuel pellets. Modern nuclear reactors may contain as many as 10 million fuel pellets. The amount of energy in each of these pellets is equal to that in almost a ton of coal or 150 gallons of oil.