Framatome, TerraPower announce plans for HALEU metallisation plant

31 May 2024

Framatome and TerraPower have agreed to design and develop a high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) metallisation pilot plant at Framatome's nuclear fuel manufacturing facility in Richland, Washington.

The Richland fuel manufacturing facility (Image: Framatome)

Metallisation is a crucial part of the deconversion process to turn enriched uranium hexafluoride - UF6 - into a form that can be used to fabricate HALEU fuel for advanced reactors. The pilot line is currently under construction and will demonstrate Framatome's capability to convert uranium dioxide into HALEU metal.

Framatome said the pilot line will initiate "a long-term collaboration to supply metal feedstock" and help Terrapower to develop a domestic supply chain for HALEU in the USA.

"This agreement advances fuel technologies for the nuclear energy industry and working pragmatically with TerraPower builds the trust and confidence our customers count on," said Ala Alzaben, senior vice president for North America Fuel at Framatome.

TerraPower's Natrium advanced nuclear power technology features a 345 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system. A Natrium demonstration plant is to be constructed near a retiring coal facility at Kemmerer in Wyoming.

A strong domestic fuel supply chain is crucial for the wide-scale deployment of advanced nuclear energy solutions, which are needed to meet clean energy targets and provide reliable, baseload energy, TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque said. "This investment by TerraPower into Framatome's pilot plant is a critical step in bringing advanced reactors like the Natrium technology to market," he added.

The USA's current commercial nuclear fuel cycle is based on reactor fuel that is enriched to no more than 5% U-235, also known as low-enriched uranium, or LEU. HALEU - enriched to between 5% and 20% - will be used by many of the advanced reactor technologies that are currently under development, but there is as yet no US domestic commercial source of HALEU available to fuel them.

A HALEU fuel cycle will need new enrichment facilities, transportation solutions, and conversion and deconversion facilities, but without a clear demand signal private fuel cycle companies cannot commit the required capital to build out the necessary infrastructure. This led to what has been described as a 'chicken and egg' problem threatening to delay the deployment of advanced reactors and small modular reactors.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) is pursuing various pathways to produce HALEU through its HALEU Availability Program (HAP), authorised by the Energy Act of 2020 to meet the pressing need for the material, and the Inflation Reduction Act - signed into law in 2022 - included a USD700 million support package. Framatome has applied for DOE funding under the HAP Deconversion and Metallisation Request for Proposals.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News