USA builds HALEU supply chain

15 December 2021

The US Department of Energy (DOE) is asking the public for its input on plans to create a new programme to assure the availability of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel - needed for the demonstration and commercial deployment of advanced reactors - in the USA. Meanwhile, Centrus is working with Clean Core Thorium Energy on advanced fuel using HALEU and thorium.

Centrus is building a facility to produce HALEU in Ohio (Image: Centrus)

DOE says the establishment of a HALEU Availability Program is essential to the demonstration and commercial deployment of advanced reactors, including two demonstration reactor projects earmarked to receive USD2.5 billion in funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed last month by President Joe Biden.

HALEU fuel is enriched to between 5% and 20% uranium-235. Most of the advanced reactors under development in the USA will use HALEU to enable them to achieve smaller designs, longer operating cycles, and better efficiencies than previous reactor designs, but it is not yet available at commercial scale from domestic suppliers. DOE projects that more than 40 tonnes of HALEU will be needed by 2030, with additional amounts required each year to deploy a new fleet of advanced reactors in a timeframe that supports the US administration's net-zero emissions targets by 2050.

According to the Request for Information (RFI) published in the Federal Register, this lack of capacity is a significant obstacle to the development and deployment of advanced reactors for commercial applications. Most of the stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) held by the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration is reserved for the USA's naval reactors and other military uses, and is not available for downblending to use in advanced reactors used for commercial applications. Other HEU in DOE's inventory is allocated to supply research reactors and medical isotope production facilities worldwide, and to meet critical defence and space requirements. This leaves a very limited amount of HEU available to be downblended to HALEU for advanced commercial reactors, which would not be sufficient to meet projected near-term demands for advanced reactor demonstration and deployment, it says.

The Energy Act of 2020 authorises DOE to establish and carry out a programme to support the availability of HALEU for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration and commercial use. The RFI will be used to help develop that programme, and will also be considered by DOE in preparing its report to Congress.

US Senator Joe Manchin, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, welcomed the announcement, saying: "I have long supported the commercialisation of advanced nuclear technologies as a zero-emission source of baseload energy, and I am committed to funding the Advanced Nuclear Fuel programme as authorised in the Energy Act of 2020 to prevent reliance on Russia or other foreign suppliers to fuel the next generation of nuclear power."

"Advanced reactors are an incredible asset to have in our collective fight against climate change," said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff. "If we don't proactively take the steps now to ensure a sufficient and diverse supply of HALEU, then reactor demonstration and deployment projects, like those funded in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, won't be fuelled in time to help us slow the impacts of climate change."

Written comments and information in response to the RFI must be submitted by 13 January 2022.

Test pellets

Separately, US enrichment company Centrus Energy Corp yesterday congratulated Clean Core Thorium Energy and Texas A&M on the fabrication of the first sample pellets of ANEEL (Advanced Nuclear Energy for Enriched Life) fuel which combines thorium and HALEU. Although the initial test pellets use HALEU supplied by Idaho National Laboratory (INL), Clean Core plans to use HALEU from Centrus for commercial-scale production of the fuel.

Clean Core and Centrus are collaborating to promote the use of ANEEL fuel in CANDU reactors and other pressurised heavy water reactors, under a memorandum of understanding signed earlier this year. The fuel can reduce the amount of waste produced in such reactors by over 80%, offering waste management and safety benefits as well as non-proliferation benefits.

"Producing the first ANEEL test pellets is an important step forward in the development of this new, advanced nuclear fuel," Centrus President and CEO Daniel Poneman said. "With a large fleet of PHWR reactors already operating in Canada and elsewhere, ANEEL could both accelerate and expand early demand for HALEU in the next few years."

Clean Core plans to test and qualify ANEEL fuel at INL during 2022 and expects to commercialise the fuel by late 2024.

Centrus is currently building the USA's first production facility for HALEU at Piketon, Ohio, under a three year, USD115 million cost-shared contract signed in 2019 with the DOE.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News