Uranium-233

For other uses, see U-233 (disambiguation).
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.[1] 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 pro- Shippingport Atomic Power Station
posed molten salt reactor designs attempt to physically
isolate the protactinium from further neutron capture before beta decay can occur.
233

U 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.

1

Fissile material

German THTR-300
Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment

T. Seaborg.[2][3]

In 1946 the public first became informed of U-233 bred
from thorium as “a third available source of nuclear energy and atom bombs” (in addition to U-235 and Pu-239),
following a United Nations report and a speech by Glenn

The United States produced, over the course of the Cold
War, approximately 2 metric tons of uranium-233, in
varying levels of chemical and isotopic purity.[1] These
were produced at the Hanford Site and Savannah River
1

2

3 WEAPON MATERIAL

Site in reactors that were designed for the production of
plutonium-239.[4] Historical production costs, estimated
from the costs of plutonium production, were 2–4 million
USD/kg. There are few reactors remaining in the world
with significant capabilities to produce more uranium233.

2

Nuclear fuel

Uranium-233 has been used as a fuel in several different
reactor types, and is proposed as a fuel for several new designs (see Thorium fuel cycle), all of which breed it from
thorium. Uranium-233 can be bred in either fast reactors or thermal reactors, unlike the uranium-238-based
fuel cycles which require the superior neutron economy
of a fast reactor in order to breed plutonium, that is, to
produce more fissile material than is consumed.
The long-term strategy of the nuclear power program of
India, which has substantial thorium reserves, is to move
to a nuclear program breeding uranium-233 from thorium feedstock.
The first detonation of a nuclear bomb that included U-233, on
15 April 1955.

2.1

Energy released

The fission of one atom of U-233 generates 197.9 MeV
= 3.171 × 10−11 J, i.e. 19.09 TJ/mol = 81.95 TJ/kg.[5]

3

Weapon material

As a potential weapon material pure uranium-233 is more
similar to plutonium-239 than uranium-235 in terms
of source (bred vs natural), half-life and critical mass,
though its critical mass is still about 50% larger than for
plutonium-239. The main difference is the unavoidable
co-presence of uranium-232[6] which can make uranium233 very dangerous to work on and quite easy to detect.
While it is thus possible to use uranium-233 as the fissile
material of a nuclear weapon, speculation[7] aside, there
is scant publicly available information on this isotope actually having been weaponized:

the same year, the RDS-37, which contained a fissile
core of U-235 and U-233.[10]
• In 1998, as part of its Pokhran-II tests, India detonated an experimental U-233 device of low-yield
(0.2 kt) called Shakti V.[11][12]
The B Reactor and others at the Hanford Site optimized
for the production of weapons-grade material have been
used to manufacture U-233.[13][14][15][16]

3.1 U-232 impurity
Production of 233 U (through the irradiation of thorium232) invariably produces small amounts of uranium-232
as an impurity, because of parasitic (n,2n) reactions on
uranium-233 itself, or on protactinium-233:

232
Th (n,γ) 233 Th (β−) 233 Pa (β−) 233 U (n,2n)
• The United States detonated an experimental device
232
U
in the 1955 Operation Teapot “MET” test which
232
used a plutonium/U-233 composite pit; its design
Th (n,γ) 233 Th (β−) 233 Pa (n,2n) 232 Pa (β−)
232
was based on the plutonium/U-235 pit from the
U
TX-7E, a prototype Mark 7 nuclear bomb design
used in the 1951 Operation Buster-Jangle “Easy” The decay chain of 232 U quickly yields strong gamma ratest. Although not an outright fizzle, MET’s actual diation emitters:
yield of 22 kilotons was sufficiently below the predicted 33 that the information gathered was of lim232
U (α, 68.9 years)
ited value.[8][9]
228
Th (α, 1.9 year)

• The Soviet Union detonated its first hydrogen bomb

224

Ra (α, 3.6 day, 0.24 MeV)

3
220

Rn (α, 55 s, 0.54 MeV)

216

Po (α, 0.15 s)

212

Pb (β−, 10.64 h)

212

Bi (α, 61 m, 0.78 MeV)

208

Tl (β−, 3 m, 2.6 MeV)

208

Pb (stable)

This makes manual handling in a glove box with only light
shielding (as commonly done with plutonium) too hazardous, (except possibly in a short period immediately
following chemical separation of the uranium from its decay products) and instead requiring complex remote manipulation for fuel fabrication.
The hazards are significant even at 5 parts per million.
Implosion nuclear weapons require U-232 levels below 50
PPM (above which the U-233 is considered “low grade";
cf. “Standard weapon grade plutonium requires a Pu-240
content of no more than 6.5%.” which is 65000 PPM,
and the analogous Pu-238 was produced in levels of 0.5%
(5000 PPM) or less). Gun-type fission weapons additionally need low levels (1 ppm range) of light impurities, to
keep the neutron generation low.[6][17]
The Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) used U233, bred in light water reactors such as Indian Point Energy Center, that was about 220 PPM U-232.[18]

4

Further information

Thorium, from which U-233 is bred, is roughly three to
four times more abundant in the earths crust than uranium. [19] [20] The decay chain of 233 U itself is in the
neptunium series.

ORNL-6952 (Oak Ridge National Laboratory).
[2] UP (29 September 1946). “Atomic Energy 'Secret' Put
into Language That Public Can Understand”. Pittsburgh
Press. Retrieved 18 October 2011.
[3] UP (21 October 1946). “Third Nuclear Source Bared”.
The Tuscaloosa News. Retrieved 18 October 2011.
[4] Orth, D.A. (1978-06-01). “Savannah River Plant Thorium Processing Experience” 43. Nuclear Technology. p.
63.
[5] http://www.kayelaby.npl.co.uk/atomic_and_nuclear_
physics/4_7/4_7_1.html
[6] Langford, R. Everett (2004). Introduction to Weapons of
Mass Destruction: Radiological, Chemical, and Biological.
Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p. 85. ISBN
0471465607. Retrieved 10 October 2012. “The US tested
a few uranium-233 bombs, but the presence of uranium232 in the uranium-233 was a problem; the uranium-232 is
a copious alpha emitter and tended to 'poison' the uranium233 bomb by knocking stray neutrons from impurities in the
bomb material, leading to possible pre-detonation. Separation of the uranium-232 from the uranium-233 proved
to be very difficult and not practical. The uranium-233
bomb was never deployed since plutonium-239 was becoming plentiful.”
[7] Agrawal, Jai Prakash (2010). High Energy Materials: Propellants, Explosives and Pyrotechnics. Wiley-VCH. pp.
56–57. ISBN 978-3-527-32610-5. Retrieved 19 March
2012. states briefly that U233 is “thought to be a component of India’s weapon program because of the availability of Thorium in abundance in India”, and could be
elsewhere as well.
[8] “Operation Teapot”. Nuclear Weapon Archive. 15 October 1997. Retrieved 2008-12-09.

Uses for uranium-233 include the production of med- [9] “Operation Buster-Jangle”. Nuclear Weapon Archive. 15
October 1997. Retrieved 2012-03-18.
ical isotopes actinium-225 and bismuth-213, low-mass
nuclear reactors for space travel applications, use as an [10] Stephen F. Ashley. “Thorium and its role in the nuclear
isotopic tracer, nuclear weapons research, and reactor
fuel cycle”. Retrieved 16 April 2014. PDF page 8, citfuel research including the thorium fuel cycle.[1]
ing: D. Holloway, “Soviet Thermonuclear Development”,
International Security 4:3 (1979–80) 192–197.

The radioisotope bismuth−213 is a decay product of
uranium-233; it has promise for the treatment of certain [11] Rajat Pandit (28 Aug 2009). “Forces gung-ho on Ntypes of cancer, including acute myeloid leukemia and
arsenal”. The Times Of India. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
cancers of the pancreas, kidneys and other organs.

5

See also

[12] “India’s Nuclear Weapons Program - Operation Shakti:
1998”. nuclearweaponarchive.org. 30 March 2001. Retrieved 21 July 2012.
[13] Historical use of thorium at Hanford

• Breeder reactor
• Liquid fluoride thorium reactor

[14] Chronology of Important FOIA Documents: Hanford’s
Semi-Secret Thorium to U-233 Production Campaign
[15] Questions and Answers on Uranium-233 at Hanford

6

Notes

[1] C. W. Forsburg and L. C. Lewis (1999-09-24). “Uses For
Uranium-233: What Should Be Kept for Future Needs?".

[16] Hanford Radioactivity in Salmon Spawning Grounds
[17] Nuclear Materials FAQ
[18] (see PDF page 10)

4

[19] “Abundance in Earth’s Crust: periodicity”.
ments.com. Retrieved 2014-04-12.

6 NOTES

WebEle-

[20] “It’s Elemental — The Periodic Table of Elements”. Jefferson Lab. Archived from the original on 29 April 2007.
Retrieved 2007-04-14.

5

7

Text and image sources, contributors, and licenses

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