The predictive models that describe the fate and transport of radioactive materials in the atmosphere following a nuclear incident (explosion or reactor accident) assume that uranium-bearing particulates would attain chemical equilibrium during vapor condensation. In this study, we show that kinetically driven processes in a system of rapidly decreasing temperature can result in substantial deviations from chemical equilibrium. This can cause uranium to condense out in oxidation states (e.g., UO3 vs UO2) that have different vapor pressures, significantly affecting uranium transport. To demonstrate this, we synthesized uranium oxide nanoparticles using a flow reactor under controlled conditions of temperature, pressure, and oxygen concentration. The atomized chemical reactants passing through an inductively coupled plasma cool from ∼5000 to 1000 K within milliseconds and form nanoparticles inside a flow reactor. The ex situ analysis of particulates by transmission electron microscopy revealed 2-10 nm crystallites of fcc-UO2 or α-UO3 depending on the amount of oxygen in the system. α-UO3 is the least thermodynamically preferred polymorph of UO3. The absence of stable uranium oxides with intermediate stoichiometries (e.g., U3O8) and sensitivity of the uranium oxidation states to local redox conditions highlight the importance of in situ measurements at high temperatures. Therefore, we developed a laser-based diagnostic to detect uranium oxide particles as they are formed inside the flow reactor. Our in situ measurements allowed us to quantify the changes in the number densities of the uranium oxide nanoparticles (e.g., UO3) as a function of oxygen gas concentration. Our results indicate that uranium can prefer to be in metastable crystal forms (i.e., α-UO3) that have higher vapor pressures than the refractory form (i.e., UO2) depending on the oxygen abundance in the surrounding environment. This demonstrates that the equilibrium processes may not dominate during rapid condensation processes, and thus kinetic models are required to fully describe uranium transport subsequent to nuclear incidents.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Analytical Chemistry