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Stages of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

The nuclear fuel cycle uses uranium in different chemical and physical forms. As illustrated below, this cycle typically includes the following stages:

  • Uranium recovery to extract (or mine) uranium ore, and concentrate (or mill) the ore to produce "yellowcake"
  • Conversion of yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride (UF6)
  • Enrichment to increase the concentration of uranium-235 (U235) in UF6
  • Deconversion to reduce the hazards associated with the depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6), or "tailings," produced in earlier stages of the fuel cycle
  • Fuel fabrication to convert enriched UF6 into fuel for nuclear reactors
  • Use of the fuel in reactors (nuclear power, research, or naval propulsion)
  • Interim storage of spent nuclear fuel
  • Reprocessing (or recycling) of high-level waste (currently not done in the U.S.) [1]
  • Final disposition (disposal) of high-level waste

Stages of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

[1]  Neither a recycling/reprocessing facility nor a Federal waste repository is currently approved (licensed) in the United States, and spent fuel is in interim storage. However, the NRC is currently reviewing a license application for a new Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, which would recycle surplus weapon-grade plutonium, remove impurities, and mix it with uranium oxide to form mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel pellets for use in reactor fuel assemblies. For additional information, see the Backgrounder on Mixed Oxide Fuel and the Frequently Asked Questions About Mixed Oxide Fuel.

Page Last Reviewed/Updated Tuesday, May 21, 2013