In nuclear engineering, fertile material (nuclide) is material that can be converted to fissile material by neutron transmutation and subsequent nuclear decay. The process of the transmutation of fertile materials to fissile materials is referred to as fuel breeding. Fertile materials are not capable of undergoing fission reaction after absorbing thermal (slow or low energy) neutrons and these materials are not capable of sustaining a nuclear fission chain reaction. There are two basic fertile materials: 238U and 232Th.
239Pu and 241Pu are products of the transmutation of the fertile isotope 238U, while 233U is product of the transmutation of the fertile isotope 232Th. These two transmutation and decay chains are shown below:
232Th is the predominant isotope of natural thorium. If this fertile material is loaded in the nuclear reactor, the nuclei of 232Th absorb a neutron and become nuclei of 233Th. The half-life of 233Th is approximately 21.8 minutes. 233Th decays (negative beta decay) to 233Pa (protactinium), whose half-life is 26.97 days. 233Pa decays (negative beta decay) to 233U, that is very good fissile material. On the other hand proposed reactor designs must attempt to physically isolate the protactinium from further neutron capture before beta decay can occur.
Neutron capture may also be used to create fissile 239Pu from 238U, which is the dominant constituent of naturally occurring uranium (99.28%). Absorption of a neutron in the 238U nucleus yields 239U. The half-life of 239U is approximately 23.5 minutes. 239U decays (negative beta decay) to 239Np (neptunium), whose half-life is 2.36 days. 239Np decays (negative beta decay) to 239Pu.
All commercial light water reactors contains both fissile and fertile materials. For example, most PWRs use low enriched uranium fuel with enrichment of 235U up to 5%. Therefore more than 95% of content of fresh fuel is fertile isotope 238U. During fuel burnup the fertile materials (conversion of 238U to fissile 239Pu known as fuel breeding) partially replace fissile 235U, thus permitting the power reactor to operate longer before the amount of fissile material decreases to the point where reactor criticality is no longer manageable.
The fuel breeding in the fuel cycle of all commercial light water reactors plays a significant role. In recent years, the commercial power industry has been emphasizing high-burnup fuels (up to 60 – 70 GWd/tU), which are typically enriched to higher percentages of 235U (up to 5%). As burnup increases, a higher percentage of the total power produced in a reactor is due to the fuel bred inside the reactor.
At a burnup of 30 GWd/tU (gigawatt-days per metric ton of uranium), about 30% of the total energy released comes from bred plutonium. At 40 GWd/tU, that percentage increases to about forty percent. This corresponds to a breeding ratio for these reactors of about 0.4 to 0.5. That means, about half of the fissile fuel in these reactors is bred there. This effect extends the cycle length for such fuels to sometimes nearly twice what it would be otherwise. MOX fuel has a smaller breeding effect than 235U fuel and is thus more challenging and slightly less economic to use due to a quicker drop off in reactivity through cycle life.
Fissile materials undergoes fission reaction after absorption of the binding energy of thermal neutron. They do not require additional kinetic energy for fission. If the neutron has higher kinetic energy, this energy will be transformed into additional excitation energy of the compound nucleus. On the other hand, the binding energy released by compound nucleus of (238U + n) after absorption of thermal neutron is less than the critical energy, so the fission reaction cannot occur. The distinction is described in the following points.
- Fissile materials are a subset of fissionable materials.
- Fissionable material consist of isotopes that are capable of undergoing nuclear fission after capturing either fast neutron (high energy neutron – let say >1 MeV) or thermal neutron (low energy neutron – let say 0.025 eV). Typical fissionable materials: 238U, 240Pu, but also 235U, 233U, 239Pu, 241Pu
- Fissile material consist of fissionable isotopes that are capable of undergoing nuclear fission only after capturing a thermal neutron. 238U is not fissile isotope, because 238U cannot be fissioned by thermal neutron. 238U does not meet also alternative requirement to fissile materials. 238U is not capable of sustaining a nuclear fission chain reaction, because neutrons produced by fission of 238U have lower energies than original neutron (usually below the threshold energy of 1 MeV). Typical fissile materials: 235U, 233U, 239Pu, 241Pu.
- Fertile material consist of isotopes that are not fissionable by thermal neutrons, but can be converted into fissile isotopes (after neutron absorption and subsequent nuclear decay). Typical fertile materials: 238U, 232Th.
See also: Neutron cross-section