Hex forms solid grey crystals at standard temperature and pressure, is highly toxic, reacts with water, and is corrosive to most metals. The compound reacts mildly with aluminium, forming a thin surface layer of AlF3 that resists any further reaction from the compound.
UF6 is used in both of the main uranium enrichment methods — gaseous diffusion and the gas centrifuge method — because its triple point is at temperature 64.05 °C (147 °F, 337 K) and only slightly higher than normal atmospheric pressure. Fluorine has only a single naturally occurring stable isotope, so isotopologues of UF6 differ in their molecular weight based solely on the uranium isotope present.
Gaseous diffusion requires about 60 times as much energy as the gas centrifuge process: gaseous diffusion-produced nuclear fuel produces 25 times more energy than is used in the diffusion process, while centrifuge-produced fuel produces 1,500 times more energy than is used in the centrifuge process.
In addition to its use in enrichment, uranium hexafluoride has been used in an advanced reprocessing method (fluoride volatility), which was developed in the Czech Republic. In this process, used oxidenuclear fuel is treated with fluorine gas to form a mixture of fluorides. This mixture is then distilled to separate the different classes of material.
Uranium enrichment produces large quantities of depleted uranium hexafluoride, or DUF6, as a waste product. The long-term storage of DUF6 presents environmental, health, and safety risks because of its chemical instability. When UF6 is exposed to moist air, it reacts with the water in the air to produce UO2F2 (uranyl fluoride) and HF (hydrogen fluoride) both of which are highly corrosive and toxic. In 2005, 686,500 tonnes of DUF6 was housed in 57,122 storage cylinders located near Portsmouth, Ohio; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Paducah, Kentucky. Storage cylinders must be regularly inspected for signs of corrosion and leaks. The estimated lifetime of the steel cylinders is measured in decades.
There have been several accidents involving uranium hexafluoride in the US, including a cylinder-filling accident and material release at the Sequoyah Fuels Corporation in 1986. The U.S. government has been converting DUF6 to solid uranium oxides for disposal. Such disposal of the entire DUF6 inventory could cost anywhere from $15 million to $450 million.
Ruptured 14-ton UF6 shipping cylinder. 1 fatality, dozens injured. ~29500 lbs of material released. Sequoyah Fuels Corporation 1986.
DUF6 storage yard from afar
DUF6 cylinders: painted (left) and corroded (right)
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