UK to launch HALEU production programme

08 January 2024

The UK government has announced it will invest GBP300 million (USD381 million) to launch a high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) programme, making the UK the first country in Europe to launch such a nuclear fuel programme.

HALEU fuel pellets produced at the Idaho National Laboratory in the USA (Image: INL)

The UK Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) said the investment will support domestic production of HALEU and is part of plans to help deliver up to 24 GW of nuclear power by 2050, providing about 25% of the UK's electricity needs.

In addition, it said GBP10 million will be provided to develop the skills and sites to produce other advanced nuclear fuels in the UK, "helping to secure long-term domestic nuclear fuel supply and support international allies".

DESNZ added: "This builds on the UK's status as a world leader in the production of nuclear fuels, with domestic capability in uranium enrichment and in fuel fabrication in the northwest of England."

HALEU - uranium enriched to between 5% and 20% uranium-235 - will be used in the advanced nuclear fuel required for most of the next-generation reactor designs currently under development. At present, only Russia and China have the infrastructure to produce HALEU at scale.

With the first advanced reactor scheduled to be operational in the early 2030s, DESNZ said the funding will boost the existing nuclear fuel production hub, supporting local industry in England's northwest while helping to expand the nuclear revival in the UK and overseas.

"This builds on the UK's work to displace Russia from the global nuclear fuels market, particularly in uranium conversion services, where government and industry are together investing up to GBP26 million to bring this capability back to the UK by the end of the decade," it added.

Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Claire Coutinho. said: "Britain gave the world its first operational nuclear power plant, and now we will be the first nation in Europe outside of Russia to produce advanced nuclear fuel. This will be critical for energy security at home and abroad and builds on Britain's historic competitive advantages."

In January last year, the UK government began accepting bids for up to GBP50 million funding for projects it hopes will "stimulate a diverse and resilient nuclear fuel market" in the country. Bids were accepted up to 20 February. The Nuclear Fuel Fund is intended to provide greater options for UK nuclear operators to use UK-produced fuel, as the country seeks to diversify its uranium and nuclear fuel production capacity away from Russia.

Eight projects have so far been awarded a total of GBP22.3 million under the Nuclear Fuel Fund. These include GBP10.5 million awarded to Westinghouse to enable its Springfields plant in Preston, Lancashire, to manufacture a broader range of nuclear fuel types for large reactors, small modular reactors and advanced modular reactors in the UK and overseas. Urenco has been awarded GBP9.5 million to help develop low enriched uranium + (LEU+) and HALEU enrichment capability at its Capenhurst site in Cheshire. In addition, more than GBP1 million has been awarded to Nuclear Transport Solutions to develop HALEU transport packages.

The USA is also developing a domestic supply of HALEU. In November last year, Centrus Energy delivered the first HALEU produced at its American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio, to the US Department of Energy (DOE). Construction of the 16-centrifuge demonstration cascade plant began in 2019, under contract with the DOE. The delivery by Centrus of more than 20 kilograms of HALEU to the DOE means that phase one of the contract has now been completed and Centrus can move ahead with the second phase: a full year of HALEU production at the 900 kilograms per year plant.

In September, Orano revealed plans to extend enrichment capacity at its Georges Besse II (GB-II) uranium enrichment plant in France, and said it had begun the regulatory process to produce HALEU there.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News