Uranium-236 (236U) 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-236, 236U
Namesuranium-236, U-236
Nuclide data
Natural abundance< 10−11
Half-life2.348 x107 years
Parent isotopes236Pa
Decay products232Th
Isotope mass236.045568(2) u
Binding energy1790415.042 ± 1.974 keV
Decay modes
Decay modeDecay energy (MeV)
Isotopes of uranium
Complete table of nuclides

Creation and yieldEdit

The fissile isotope uranium-235 fuels most nuclear reactors. When 235U absorbs a thermal neutron, one of two processes can occur. About 82% of the time, it will fission; about 18% of the time, it will not fission, instead emitting gamma radiation and yielding 236U. Thus, the yield of 236U per 235U+n reaction is about 18%, and the yield of fissile decay products is about 82%. In comparison, the yields of the most abundant individual fission products like caesium-137, strontium-90, and technetium-99 are between 6% and 7%, and the combined yield of medium-lived (10 years and up) and long-lived fission products is about 32%, or a few percent less as some are destroyed by neutron capture.

The second-most used fissile isotope plutonium-239 can also fission or not fission on absorbing a thermal neutron. The product plutonium-240 makes up a large proportion of reactor-grade plutonium (plutonium recycled from spent fuel that was originally made with enriched natural uranium and then used once in an LWR). 240Pu decays with a half-life of 6561 years into 236U. In a closed nuclear fuel cycle, most 240Pu will be fissioned (possibly after more than one neutron capture) before it decays, but 240Pu discarded as nuclear waste will decay over thousands of years.

Actinides and fission products by half-life
Actinides[1] by decay chain Half-life
range (y)
Fission products of 235U by yield[2]
4n 4n+1 4n+2 4n+3
4.5–7% 0.04–1.25% <0.001%
228Ra 4–6 155Euþ
244Cmƒ 241Puƒ 250Cf 227Ac 10–29 90Sr 85Kr 113mCdþ
232Uƒ 238Puƒ 243Cmƒ 29–97 137Cs 151Smþ 121mSn
248Bk[3] 249Cfƒ 242mAmƒ 141–351

No fission products
have a half-life
in the range of
100–210 k years ...

241Amƒ 251Cfƒ[4] 430–900
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
239Puƒ 24.1 k
230Th 231Pa 32 k – 76 k
236Npƒ 233Uƒ 234U 150 k – 250 k 99Tc 126Sn
248Cm 242Pu 327 k – 375 k 79Se
1.53 M 93Zr
237Npƒ 2.1 M – 6.5 M 135Cs 107Pd
236U 247Cmƒ 15 M – 24 M 129I
244Pu 80 M

... nor beyond 15.7 M years[5]

232Th 238U 235Uƒ№ 0.7 G – 14.1 G

Legend for superscript symbols
₡  has thermal neutron capture cross section in the range of 8–50 barns
ƒ  fissile
metastable isomer
№  primarily a naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM)
þ  neutron poison (thermal neutron capture cross section greater than 3k barns)
†  range 4–97 y: Medium-lived fission product
‡  over 200,000 y: Long-lived fission product

While the largest part of uranium-236 has been produced by neutron capture in nuclear power reactors, it is for the most part stored in nuclear reactors and waste repositories. The most significant contribution to uranium-236 abundance in the environment is the 238U(n,3n)236U reaction by fast neutrons in thermonuclear weapons. The A-bomb testing of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s has raised the environmental abundance levels significantly above the expected natural levels.[6]

Destruction and decayEdit

236U, on absorption of a thermal neutron, does not undergo fission, but becomes 237U, which quickly beta decays to 237Np. However, the neutron capture cross section of 236U is low, and this process does not happen quickly in a thermal reactor. Spent nuclear fuel typically contains about 0.4% 236U. With a much greater cross-section, 237Np may eventually absorb another neutron, becoming 238Np (which quickly beta decays to plutonium-238), or fission (237Np is fissile).

236U and most other actinides are fissionable by fast neutrons in a nuclear bomb or a fast neutron reactor. A small number of fast reactors have been in research use for decades, but widespread use for power production is still in the future.

Uranium-236 alpha decays with a half-life of 23.420 million years to thorium-232. It is longer-lived than any other artificial actinides or fission products produced in the nuclear fuel cycle. (Plutonium-244 which has a half-life of 80 million years is not produced in significant quantity by the nuclear fuel cycle, and the longer-lived uranium-235, uranium-238, and thorium-232 occur in nature.)

Difficulty of separationEdit

Unlike plutonium, minor actinides, fission products, or activation products, chemical processes cannot separate 236U from 238U, 235U, 232U or other uranium isotopes. It is even difficult to remove with isotopic separation, as low enrichment will concentrate not only the desirable 235U and 233U but the undesirable 236U, 234U and 232U. On the other hand, 236U in the environment cannot separate from 238U and concentrate separately, which limits its radiation hazard in any one place.

Contribution to radioactivity of reprocessed uraniumEdit

The half-life of 238U is about 190 times as long as that of 236U; therefore, 236U should have about 190 times as much specific activity. That is, in reprocessed uranium with 0.5% 236U, the 236U and 238U will produce about the same level of radioactivity. (235U contributes only a few percent.)

The ratio is less than 190 when the decay products of each are included. The decay chain of uranium-238 to uranium-234 and eventually lead-206 involves emission of eight alpha particles in a time (hundreds of thousands of years) short compared to the half-life of 238U, so that a sample of 238U in equilibrium with its decay products (as in natural uranium ore) will have eight times the alpha activity of 238U alone. Even purified natural uranium where the post-uranium decay products have been removed will contain an equilibrium quantity of 234U and therefore about twice the alpha activity of pure 238U. Enrichment to increase 235U content will increase 234U to an even greater degree, and roughly half of this 234U will survive in the spent fuel. On the other hand, 236U decays to thorium-232 which has a half-life of 14 billion years, equivalent to a decay rate only 31.4% as great as that of 238U.

Depleted uraniumEdit

Depleted uranium used in kinetic energy penetrators, etc. is supposed to be made from uranium enrichment tailings that have never been irradiated in a nuclear reactor, not reprocessed uranium. However, there have been claims that some depleted uranium has contained small amounts of 236U.[7]

Uranium-236 is an
isotope of uranium
Decay product of:
Decay chain
of uranium-236
Decays to:

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Specifically from thermal neutron fission of U-235, e.g. in a typical nuclear reactor.
  3. ^ Milsted, J.; Friedman, A. M.; Stevens, C. M. (1965). "The alpha half-life of berkelium-247; a new long-lived isomer of berkelium-248". Nuclear Physics. 71 (2): 299. Bibcode:1965NucPh..71..299M. doi:10.1016/0029-5582(65)90719-4.
    "The isotopic analyses disclosed a species of mass 248 in constant abundance in three samples analysed over a period of about 10 months. This was ascribed to an isomer of Bk248 with a half-life greater than 9 y. No growth of Cf248 was detected, and a lower limit for the β half-life can be set at about 104 y. No alpha activity attributable to the new isomer has been detected; the alpha half-life is probably greater than 300 y."
  4. ^ This is the heaviest nuclide with a half-life of at least four years before the "Sea of Instability".
  5. ^ Excluding those "classically stable" nuclides with half-lives significantly in excess of 232Th; e.g., while 113mCd has a half-life of only fourteen years, that of 113Cd is nearly eight quadrillion years.
  6. ^ Winkler, Stephan; Peter Steier; Jessica Carilli (2012). "Bomb fall-out 236U as a global oceanic tracer using an annually resolved coral core". Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 359-360 (1): 124–130. Bibcode:2012E&PSL.359..124W. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2012.10.004. PMC 3617727. PMID 23564966.
  7. ^ https://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2001/unep81.doc.htm

External linksEdit