2.7Kg Uranium Burned by Mistake
By Kim Tae-gyu, Kang Shin-who
The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) said Thursday that it burned up to 2.7 kilograms of uranium by mistake in May and has reported the fact to the government and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The uranium was made up of 1.9 kilograms of natural uranium and 0.8 kilograms depleted uranium as well as 0.2 grams of enriched uranium, which was still being investigated by the IAEA.
“Our staff mistook the uranium stored in a small box for waste, and had it burned in a facility in Gyeonggi Province in May. We learned of this on Aug. 6,â€™â€™ said a KAERI spokesman, who declined to be named.
“We are investigating how come such an accident happened. But the uranium will not pose any environmental threat. It also has nothing to do with weapons-grade uranium,â€™â€™ he said.
The 0.2 grams of enriched uranium has an enrichment level of around 10 percent and was created through experiments in 2000 by KAERI researchers.
The KAERI contended the material, which was uncovered in 2004, was made in an experiment to obtain substances used for high-end medical equipment.
The Daejeon-based state-run institute, about 160 kilometers south of Seoul, also argued that the 10-percent level enriched uranium has nothing to do with the weapons-grade uranium which has an enrichment level of around 90 percent.
However, the IAEA sent an investigative team to Korea in 2004 to check into the material and the investigation is technically ongoing.
“We are searching for evidence that the 0.2 grams of enriched uranium was erroneously burned in order to report it to the IAEA. We hope we will be able to do so,â€™â€™ the anonymous spokesman said.
Uranium found in nature consists largely of two isotopes _ U-235 and U-238. The former is highly fissionable and can be used to create large amounts of energy in the process of its atoms splitting.
The problem is that natural uranium contains just 0.7 percent of U-235 and the remaining 99.3 percent is mostly U-238, which doesnâ€™t directly contribute to the fission process.
Accordingly, scientists separate the two isotopes and increase _ or enrich _ the proportion of U-235 to 4-5 percent for nuclear reactors and to more than 90 percent for weapons.
Uranium artificially processed with 20 percent-plus U-235 is highly-enriched, while uranium enriched above the natural U-235 abundance level but to less than 20 percent is low-enriched.