Isotopes of uranium
Uranium (92U) is a naturally occurring radioactive element that has no stable isotopes but two primordial isotopes (uranium-238 and uranium-235) that have long half-lives and are found in appreciable quantity in the Earth's crust, along with the decay product uranium-234. The standard atomic weight of natural uranium is 238.02891(3). Other isotopes such as uranium-232 have been produced in breeder reactors. In addition to isotopes found in nature or nuclear reactors, many isotopes with far shorter half-lives have been produced, ranging from 215U to 242U (with the exception of 220U and 241U).
|Standard atomic weight Ar, standard(U)|
Naturally occurring uranium is composed of three major isotopes, uranium-238 (99.2739–99.2752% natural abundance), uranium-235 (0.7198–0.7202%), and uranium-234 (0.0050–0.0059%). All three isotopes are radioactive, creating radioisotopes, with the most abundant and stable being uranium-238 with a half-life of 4.4683×109 years (close to the age of the Earth).
Uranium-238 is an α emitter, decaying through the 18-member uranium series into lead-206. The decay series of uranium-235 (historically called actino-uranium) has 15 members that ends in lead-207. The constant rates of decay in these series makes comparison of the ratios of parent to daughter elements useful in radiometric dating. Uranium-233 is made from thorium-232 by neutron bombardment.
The isotope uranium-235 is important for both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons because it is the only isotope existing in nature to any appreciable extent that is fissile, that is, can be broken apart by thermal neutrons. The isotope uranium-238 is also important because it absorbs neutrons to produce a radioactive isotope that subsequently decays to the isotope plutonium-239, which also is fissile.
List of isotopesEdit
isotopic mass (u)
|range of natural|
|228U||92||136||228.031374(16)||9.1(2) min||α (95%)||224Th||0+|
|229U||92||137||229.033506(6)||58(3) min||β+ (80%)||229Pa||(3/2+)|
|233U||92||141||233.0396352(29)||1.592(2)×105 y||α||229Th||5/2+||Trace[n 3]|
|234U[n 4][n 5]||Uranium II||92||142||234.0409521(20)||2.455(6)×105 y||α||230Th||0+||[0.000054(5)][n 6]||0.000050–|
|234mU||1421.32(10) keV||33.5(20) ms||6−|
|235U[n 7][n 8][n 9]||Actin Uranium
|235mU||0.0765(4) keV||~26 min||IT||235U||1/2+|
|236U||Thoruranium||92||144||236.045568(2)||2.342(3)×107 y||α||232Th||0+||Trace[n 10]|
|236m1U||1052.89(19) keV||100(4) ns||(4)−|
|236m2U||2750(10) keV||120(2) ns||(0+)|
|237U||92||145||237.0487302(20)||6.75(1) d||β−||237Np||1/2+||Trace[n 11]|
|238U[n 5][n 7][n 8]||Uranium I||92||146||238.0507882(20)||4.468(3)×109 y||α||234Th||0+||[0.992742(10)]||0.992739–|
|238mU||2557.9(5) keV||280(6) ns||0+|
|239m1U||20(20)# keV||>250 ns||(5/2+)|
|239m2U||133.7990(10) keV||780(40) ns||1/2+|
|240U||92||148||240.056592(6)||14.1(1) h||β−||240Np||0+||Trace[n 12]|
CD: Cluster decay
EC: Electron capture
IT: Isomeric transition
SF: Spontaneous fission
- Bold for stable isotopes, bold italics for nearly-stable isotopes (half-life longer than the age of the universe)
- Intermediate decay product of 237Np
- Used in uranium–thorium dating
- Used in uranium–uranium dating
- Intermediate decay product of 238U
- Primordial radionuclide
- Used in Uranium–lead dating
- Important in nuclear reactors
- Intermediate decay product of 244Pu, also produced by neutron capture of 235U
- Neutron capture product, parent of trace quantities of 237Np
- Intermediate decay product of 244Pu
- Evaluated isotopic composition is for most but not all commercial samples.
- The precision of the isotope abundances and atomic mass is limited through variations. The given ranges should be applicable to any normal terrestrial material.
- Geologically exceptional samples are known in which the isotopic composition lies outside the reported range. The uncertainty in the atomic mass may exceed the stated value for such specimens.
- Commercially available materials may have been subjected to an undisclosed or inadvertent isotopic fractionation. Substantial deviations from the given mass and composition can occur.
- Values marked # are not purely derived from experimental data, but at least partly from systematic trends. Spins with weak assignment arguments are enclosed in parentheses.
- Uncertainties are given in concise form in parentheses after the corresponding last digits. Uncertainty values denote one standard deviation, except isotopic composition and standard atomic mass from IUPAC, which use expanded uncertainties.
Actinides vs fission productsEdit
Actinides and fission products by half-life
|Actinides by decay chain||Half-life
|Fission products of 235U by yield|
No fission products
|226Ra№||247Bk||1.3 k – 1.6 k|
|240Pu||229Th||246Cmƒ||243Amƒ||4.7 k – 7.4 k|
|245Cmƒ||250Cm||8.3 k – 8.5 k|
|230Th№||231Pa№||32 k – 76 k|
|236Npƒ||233Uƒ||234U№||150 k – 250 k||‡||99Tc₡||126Sn|
|248Cm||242Pu||327 k – 375 k||79Se₡|
|237Npƒ||2.1 M – 6.5 M||135Cs₡||107Pd|
|236U||247Cmƒ||15 M – 24 M||129I₡|
... nor beyond 15.7 M years
|232Th№||238U№||235Uƒ№||0.7 G – 14.1 G|
Legend for superscript symbols
Uranium-232 has a half-life of 68.9 years and is a side product in the thorium cycle. It has been cited as an obstacle to nuclear proliferation using 233U as the fissile material, because the intense gamma radiation emitted by 208Tl (a daughter of 232U, produced relatively quickly) makes the 233U contaminated with it more difficult to handle. Uranium-232 is a rare example of an even-even isotope that is fissile with both thermal and fast neutrons.
Uranium-233 is a fissile isotope of uranium that is bred from thorium-232 as part of the thorium fuel cycle. Uranium-233 was investigated for use in nuclear weapons and as a reactor fuel; however, it was never deployed in nuclear weapons or used commercially as a nuclear fuel. It has been used successfully in experimental nuclear reactors and has been proposed for much wider use as a nuclear fuel. It has a half-life of 159,200 years.
Uranium-233 is produced by the neutron irradiation of thorium-232. When thorium-232 absorbs a neutron, it becomes thorium-233, which has a half-life of only 22 minutes. Thorium-233 decays into protactinium-233 through beta decay. Protactinium-233 has a half-life of 27 days and beta decays into uranium-233; some proposed molten salt reactor designs attempt to physically isolate the protactinium from further neutron capture before beta decay can occur.
Uranium-233 usually fissions on neutron absorption but sometimes retains the neutron, becoming uranium-234. The capture-to-fission ratio is smaller than the other two major fissile fuels uranium-235 and plutonium-239; it is also lower than that of short-lived plutonium-241, but bested by very difficult-to-produce neptunium-236.
Uranium-234 is an isotope of uranium. In natural uranium and in uranium ore, U-234 occurs as an indirect decay product of uranium-238, but it makes up only 0.0055% (55 parts per million) of the raw uranium because its half-life of just 245,500 years is only about 1/18,000 as long as that of U-238. The path of production of U-234 via nuclear decay is as follows: U-238 nuclei emit an alpha particle to become thorium-234 (Th-234). Next, with a short half-life, a Th-234 nucleus emits a beta particle to become protactinium-234 (Pa-234). Finally, Pa-234 nuclei each emit another beta particle to become U-234 nuclei.
Extraction of rather small amounts of U-234 from natural uranium would be feasible using isotope separation, similar to that used for regular uranium-enrichment. However, there is no real demand in chemistry, physics, or engineering for isolating U-234. Very small pure samples of U-234 can be extracted via the chemical ion-exchange process—from samples of plutonium-238 that have been aged somewhat to allow some decay to U-234 via alpha emission.
Enriched uranium contains more U-234 than natural uranium as a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process aimed at obtaining U-235, which concentrates lighter isotopes even more strongly than it does U-235. The increased percentage of U-234 in enriched natural uranium is acceptable in current nuclear reactors, but (re-enriched) reprocessed uranium might contain even higher fractions of U-234, which is undesirable. This is because U-234 is not fissile, and tends to absorb slow neutrons in a nuclear reactor—becoming U-235.
U-234 has a neutron capture cross-section of about 100 barns for thermal neutrons, and about 700 barns for its resonance integral—the average over neutrons having various intermediate energies. In a nuclear reactor non-fissile isotopes capture a neutron breeding fissile isotopes. U-234 is converted to U-235 more easily and therefore at a greater rate than U-238 is to Pu-239 (via neptunium-239) because U-238 has a much smaller neutron-capture cross-section of just 2.7 barns.
Uranium-235 is an isotope of uranium making up about 0.72% of natural uranium. Unlike the predominant isotope uranium-238, it is fissile, i.e., it can sustain a fission chain reaction. It is the only fissile isotope that is a primordial nuclide or found in significant quantity in nature.
Uranium-235 has a half-life of 703.8 million years. It was discovered in 1935 by Arthur Jeffrey Dempster. Its (fission) nuclear cross section for slow thermal neutron is about 504.81 barns. For fast neutrons it is on the order of 1 barn. At thermal energy levels, about 5 of 6 neutron absorptions result in fission and 1 of 6 result in neutron capture forming uranium-236. The fission-to-capture ratio improves for faster neutrons.
Uranium-236 is an isotope of uranium that is neither fissile with thermal neutrons, nor very good fertile material, but is generally considered a nuisance and long-lived radioactive waste. It is found in spent nuclear fuel and in the reprocessed uranium made from spent nuclear fuel.
Uranium-238 (238U or U-238) is the most common isotope of uranium found in nature. It is not fissile, but is a fertile material: it can capture a slow neutron and after two beta decays become fissile plutonium-239. Uranium-238 is fissionable by fast neutrons, but cannot support a chain reaction because inelastic scattering reduces neutron energy below the range where fast fission of one or more next-generation nuclei is probable. Doppler broadening of U-238's neutron absorption resonances, increasing absorption as fuel temperature increases, is also an essential negative feedback mechanism for reactor control.
Around 99.284% of natural uranium is uranium-238, which has a half-life of 1.41×1017 seconds (4.468×109 years, or 4.468 billion years). Depleted uranium has an even higher concentration of the U-238 isotope, and even low-enriched uranium (LEU), while having a higher proportion of the uranium-235 isotope (in comparison to depleted uranium), is still mostly U-238. Reprocessed uranium is also mainly U-238, with about as much uranium-235 as natural uranium, a comparable proportion of uranium-236, and much smaller amounts of other isotopes of uranium such as uranium-234, uranium-233, and uranium-232
|Decay mode||Decay energy (MeV)|
|Beta decay 20%||1.28|
|Beta decay 80%||1.21|
|Isotopes of uranium |
Complete table of nuclides
Uranium-239 is an isotope of uranium. It is usually produced by exposing 238U to neutron radiation in a nuclear reactor. 239U has a half-life of about 23.45 minutes and decays into neptunium-239 through beta decay, with a total decay energy of about 1.29 MeV. The most common gamma decay at 74.660 keV accounts for the difference in the two major channels of beta emission energy, at 1.28 and 1.21 MeV.
239Np further decays to plutonium-239 also through beta decay (239Np has a half-life of about 2.356 days), in a second important step that ultimately produces fissile 239Pu (used in weapons and for nuclear power), from 238U in reactors.
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- Plus radium (element 88). While actually a sub-actinide, it immediately precedes actinium (89) and follows a three-element gap of instability after polonium (84) where no nuclides have half-lives of at least four years (the longest-lived nuclide in the gap is radon-222 with a half life of less than four days). Radium's longest lived isotope, at 1,600 years, thus merits the element's inclusion here.
- Specifically from thermal neutron fission of U-235, e.g. in a typical nuclear reactor.
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- This is the heaviest nuclide with a half-life of at least four years before the "Sea of Instability".
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