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Lithium is a silvery metal that makes up about 7.5% of Earth’s crust and has two stable isotopes (6Li and 7Li), with 6Li being the more abundant. It also has seven radioisotopes, all with short half-lives.
The isotope is useful in nuclear power plants because it is relatively transparent to neutrons, so it can be used as a pH stabilizer and to reduce corrosion in the primary circuit of pressurized water reactors. It is also used for production of the medical research radioisotope Be-7. It is therefore important to maintain a large supply of the pure isotope, which can only be produced in the laboratory using expensive equipment.
As of 2013, the NCCP is supplying about half of the world’s consumption of lithium-7 (by atomic mass) as a tritium-free hydroxide monohydrate for nuclear use. In the future it is expected to play a larger role as an essential component of molten salt reactors.
NCCP is able to produce the material using the mercury exchange method, which involves immersing a solution of lithium-mercury amalgam in liquid nitrogen. Open source literature suggests that the North Korean government has been studying this and other enrichment processes since the 1990s, with the aim of improving or re-engineering them.
Isotopic analysis has shown that samples enriched in li-6 have an atomic mass of between 6.94 and 6.95 u, depending on the concentrations of the isotopes. Some geologically exceptional samples have a relative abundance of li-6 greater than the stated value, but the variation is usually much less than 1%.