DOE begins scoping for HALEU supply

06 June 2023

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has formally begun the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) scoping process for its proposed programme to support the commercial production of high-assay low-enriched uranium - or HALEU - fuel. The DOE is also seeking feedback on two draft requests for proposals to acquire HALEU.

(Image: DOE)

A Notice of Intent (NOI) published in the US Federal Register on 5 June marks the start of a 45-day scoping process, inviting public comment on the scope of the draft EIS.  The draft statement is expected to be available by the end of this year, and will be opened for public comment before the final EIS is prepared. The DOE expects the final statement to be available in mid-2024.

The Energy Act of 2020 charges the US Secretary of Energy - through the Office of Nuclear Energy - with establishing and carrying out the HALEU Availability Program "to support the availability of uranium enriched to greater than 5 and less than 20 weight percent uranium-235 … for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use", DOE said in its Notice of Intent. "Consistent with the objectives of, and direction in the Energy Act of 2020, the Department of Energy proposes to take actions to establish a temporary domestic demand for HALEU to stimulate a diverse, domestic commercial HALEU supply that could ultimately lead to a competitive HALEU market and a more certain domestic HALEU demand."

The current US commercial nuclear fuel cycle is based on reactor fuel that is enriched to no more than 5% U-235 (known as low-enriched uranium, LEU). Some of the advanced reactor technologies that are currently under development use HALEU fuel, which enables the design of smaller reactors that produce more power with less fuel than the current fleet, as well as systems that can be optimised for longer core life, increased safety margins, and other increased efficiencies, but there is as yet no US domestic commercial source of HALEU available to fuel them, the NOI says, and this could impede both the demonstration of these technologies and the development of future advanced reactor technologies.

Initially, existing DOE stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) could be processed or downblended into HALEU to meet the requirements of the department's HALEU Availability Program, but as these stockpiles are depleted, production would need to be supplemented by or transition to commercially operated facilities. The department is recommending an initial public/private partnership to address what it calls the high-fidelity (high-confidence demand) HALEU market - such as fuel for demonstration reactors - plus some of the projected commercial demand for power reactors. "The private sector could incrementally expand the capacity in a modular fashion to establish HALEU enrichment and supply that are sufficient to meet future needs as a sustainable market develops," it says.

The DOE's proposed action is to acquire "through procurement from commercial sources" HALEU enriched to 19.75-20% U-235 over a ten-year period, and to "facilitate the establishment of commercial HALEU fuel production".

Given the variety of HALEU applications, it says, the initial capability is intended to be flexible and able to accommodate enrichment levels of 5-20% U-235; the production of between 5 and 145 tU of HALEU; with modular HALEU fuel cycle facility design concepts to accommodate future growth; and deconversion of uranium hexafluoride to forms suitable for production of a variety of uranium fuels, to include oxides and metal.
"Reasonably foreseeable" activities that could result from implementation of the proposed action include fuel fabrication for a variety of fuel types in a US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Category II facility; reactor operation; and used fuel storage and disposition.

The public scoping period will end on 20 July.

RFP feedback

The DOE has also asked for feedback on two draft requests for proposals (RFPs) to acquire HALEU. The first RFP focuses on acquiring services for the production of HALEU in the form of uranium hexafluoride gas, while the second focuses on deconversion activities  to convert enriched uranium hexafluoride gas into metal or oxide forms for fuel fabrication. The department said it is looking for feedback on the draft solicitations, including the goals, scope, and selection criteria, which it will use to inform the final RFPs to be issued later this year. The draft RFPs are open for public comment until July 6.

"We must jump-start a commercial-scale, domestic supply chain for HALEU," Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff said. "Acquiring these services in the United States will reduce reliance on Russia, create American jobs, and support US climate and energy security goals."

DOE projects that more than 40 tonnes of HALEU could be needed before the end of the decade, with additional amounts required each year, to deploy a new fleet of advanced reactors in a to reach the current US Administration's goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News