Journal of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy
On-line version ISSN 2411-9717
CROUSE, P.L.. Fluorine: A key enabling element in the nuclear fuel cycle. J. S. Afr. Inst. Min. Metall. [online]. 2015, vol.115, n.10, pp. 931-935. ISSN 2411-9717. http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2411-9717/2015/v115n10a5.
Fluorine - in the form of hydrofluoric acid, anhydrous hydrogen fluoride, elemental gaseous fluorine, fluoropolymers, volatile inorganic fluorides, and more - has played, and still plays, a major role in the nuclear industry. In order to enrich uranium, the metal has to be in the gaseous state. While more exotic methods are known, the standard and most cost-competitive way of achieving this is by means of uranium hexafluoride (UF6). This compound sublimates at low temperatures, and the vapour is enriched using centrifugal processes. The industrial preparation of uranium hexafluoride requires both elemental fluorine gas and anhydrous hydrogen fluoride (HF). HF is prepared by the reaction of sulphuric acid with fluorspar (CaF2). Fluorine gas in turn is prepared by the electrolysis of HF. Yellowcake is first converted to uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), using HF, after which the compound is treated with fluorine to yield UF6. After enrichment, the UF6 is reduced to UO2 for use in fuel elements in pellet form. South Africa has the largest reserves of fluorspar internationally, and is the third largest producer after Mexico and China. Fluorine technology has many associated difficulties, because of the reactivity of fluorine and the toxicity of HF. The main barriers to entry into the fluorochemical industry are thus the abilities to produce both HF and F2. Both these substances are produced locally, at the industrial scale, at Pelchem SOC Ltd. Should South Africa contemplate developing its own nuclear fuel cycle as part of the awaited new-build nuclear project, it will be imperative to leverage the existing skills with respect to fluorine technology, resident at both Pelchem and Necsa, for this purpose. This paper summarizes the fluorochemical skills developed locally over the past several decades, and suggests strategies for maintaining the technology base and developing it for the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Keywords : flourine; hydrogen flouride; nuclear fuel cycle.