US Senate votes to 'onshore' nuclear fuel production

31 July 2023

The US Senate has voted by 96-3 to approve legislation that would strengthen domestic nuclear fuel production and ensure that disruptions in uranium supply will not impact the development of advance reactors or the operation of the USA's existing power reactor fleet.

John Barrasso speaks in the Senate ahead of the vote (Image: Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources)

The bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024 was introduced to Congress in February by Senators Joe Manchin, John Barrasso and Jim Risch. Manchin and Barrasso are, respectively, Chairman and Ranking Member of the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Risch is Ranking Member of the US Senate Foreign Relations committee.

The purpose of S.Amdt.999 is: "To require the Secretary of Energy to establish a Nuclear Fuel Security Program, expand the American Assured Fuel Supply Program, establish a HALEU for Advanced Nuclear Reactor Demonstration Projects Program, and submit a report on a civil nuclear credit program, and to enhance programs to build workforce capacity to meet critical mission needs of the Department of Energy." The amendment was previously introduced as the Nuclear Fuel Security Act of 2023.

The Nuclear Fuel Security Program envisaged in the amendment will require the US Department of Energy (DOE) to begin acquiring at least 100 tonnes of low-enriched uranium per year, entering into at least two contracts by the end of 2026 "to ensure diversity of supply in domestic uranium mining, conversion, enrichment, and deconversion capacity and technologies, including new capacity, among US nuclear energy companies. It also requires DOE to begin acquiring at least 20 tonnes per year of HALEU by the end of 2027. The programme must utilise only uranium "produced, converted, enriched, deconverted, and reduced" in the USA, or, if this is not practicable, a country "that is an ally or partner of the United States".

HALEU is high-assay, low-enriched uranium, enriched to between 5% and 20% uranium-235. It will be required by many advanced reactor designs that are under development in both the commercial and government sectors, but such fuel is not yet commercially available, putting future projects at risk of delay: in December last year, TerraPower said it expected operation of the its Natrium demonstration reactor at Kemmerer in Wyoming to be delayed by at least two years beyond originally planned 2028 startup because of the lack of sufficient domestic HALEU manufacturing capacity. TerraPower recently announced a collaboration with Centrus Energy Corp to ensure the Natrium demonstration reactor will have access to HALEU at the milestones necessary to meet a 2030 operation date.

"I want to thank everyone for voting for this amendment," Manchin said after the Senate vote on 27 July. "Finally, the United States is going to start taking care of its own and producing the enriched uranium we need rather than depending on Russia. It’s long past due, and we finally, with this amendment, will get started in the right direction."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News