Centrus selected for HALEU enrichment project

08 January 2019

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has announced plans to award a contract to a subsidiary of Centrus Energy Corp to demonstrate the production of high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU). The project will see the deployment of a cascade of 16 AC-100M centrifuges at Piketon, Ohio.

The American Centrifuge Plant site at Piketon (Image: Centrus)

The HALEU Demonstration Program has two primary objectives: deployment of a 16-machine cascade producing 19.75%U-235 enriched product by October 2020; and demonstration of the capability to produce HALEU with existing US-origin enrichment technology, providing the DOE with a "small quantity" of HALEU for use in research and development "and other programmatic missions". The award is expected to run from January 2019 to December 2020, with an option for a further year.

Centrus Energy subsidiary American Centrifuge Operating LLC (ACO) is the only source capable of executing the contract activities to meet the programme's requirements, the DOE said in a notice of its intent to place the contract, which was published yesterday on the US Government's Federal Business Opportunities website.

Low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel used in today's nuclear power plants typically contains less than 5% of fissile uranium-235 (U-235), but many advanced reactor designs currently under development will require fuel enriched to between 5% and 20% U-235, also known as HALEU fuel.

Only US-origin technology can be used to produce HALEU for use in any type of advanced reactor application, whether civilian or defence-related, the notice says. In addition, "due to the sensitive nature regarding access to and operation of US-origin enrichment technology," the DOE requires the contractor to be both US-owned and US-controlled. The AC-100M - which was developed and demonstrated by ACO - is the only existing US-origin uranium enrichment technology which can be used to fulfil the project, while ACO and Centrus Energy Corp both meet the ownership and control criteria. ACO also has an existing US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licence that would enable it to meet DOE's schedule for the demonstration, and subleases a facility from the DOE at Piketon - the site of the former American Centrifuge Project - which is designed for uranium enrichment operations, the notice adds.

Operations at the American Centrifuge demonstration uranium enrichment plant at Piketon were completed in February 2016. The cascade, which operated for three years, was intended to demonstrate the long-term performance and reliability of US-developed centrifuge enrichment technology prior to commercial deployment in the American Centrifuge Plant. The NRC issued a construction and operation licence for the commercial plant in 2007, but the project was eventually halted after problems securing federal loan guarantees.

Ohio Senator Rob Portman said the DOE intends to invest USD115 million in the HALEU enrichment project over the next three years, and described the announcement as a "milestone" in for the Piketon site.

"Getting Piketon back to its full potential benefits the skilled workforce here, the surrounding local economy, and strengthens national energy and defence security," he said.

Centrus described the proposed demonstration as "very good news" for the entire US nuclear industry.

"If America wants to be competitive in supplying the next generation of nuclear reactors around the world, we need an assured, American source of high-assay, low-enriched uranium to power those reactors. We stand ready to work with the Department [of Energy] to get the proposed project under way as quickly as possible," the company told World Nuclear News.

There are currently no US-based facilities that can produce HALEU on a commercial scale, and the US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) last year called for work to begin to develop a national fuel cycle infrastructure to support the operation of the advanced reactors.

NEI President and CEO Maria Korsnick yesterday said the HALEU pilot programme demonstrated the DOE's "continued confidence" in the success of the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors and new fuel options for the existing fleet.

"DOE's investment is a significant starting point in the HALEU fuel infrastructure. We appreciate [Energy] Secretary Perry's attention to this urgent matter and look forward to working with DOE and Congress to ensure the US can compete globally to design and deploy advanced reactor technology," she said.

Greenbelt, Maryland-based X-energy yesterday said the DOE announcement integrated with its own plan to design, license, and construct a fabrication facility for HALEU-based fuel. Centrus is collaborating with X-energy in the design of the TRISO-X Fuel Fabrication Facility, which will produce fuel based on uranium oxycarbide tristructural isotropic (TRISO) forms. Many Generation IV reactor designs - including X-energy's Xe-100 high temperature gas-cooled pebble bed reactor - require a stable and reliable source of HALEU fuel, and X-energy Vice President of Fuels Production Pete Pappano said the production of HALEU by a domestic supplier using US-developed technology addressed a "major gap" in the supply chain for next generation fuel facilities.

X-energy's president, Harlan Bowers, said the successful deployment of advanced reactors, both for commercial and government applications, by the mid- to late-2020s is vital to reviving the US nuclear industry. "This revitalisation cannot occur without a complete fuel supply chain, including HALEU production and fuel fabrication," he said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News