Urenco USA announces HALEU activities

06 February 2019

Enrichment company Urenco USA has announced a new programme covering the production of high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU), and is considering the construction of a dedicated HALEU unit at its US uranium enrichment facility.

Urenco USA (Image: Urenco)

HALEU - uranium enriched up to 19.75% in fissile uranium-235 - is described by the company as a sub-category of low enriched uranium that will be used for civil, peaceful applications in existing and new power plants as well as for research, test and medical isotope facilities. Urenco's advanced gas centrifuge enrichment technology is capable of producing all levels of uranium enrichment, and some of its facilities are already licensed to produce at enrichments above 5%, which is the maximum enrichment level of fuel typically used in most currently operating commercial reactors.

The company said yesterday it is "exploring the construction" of a dedicated HALEU facility at the Urenco USA enrichment facility, and is progressing design engineering and related licensing activities to support the project. Further activity at Urenco USA is underway to support near-term delivery of slightly greater than 5% U235 enrichments for existing light water reactors interested in higher burn-up rates and/or extended operating cycles, the company said.

Urenco Chief Executive Thomas Haeberle said the work fell within the company's core expertise. "We have proven enrichment technology which benefits from modular deployment. This was successfully demonstrated when we built the USA's world scale commercial enrichment plant which can suitably accommodate a HALEU facility," he said, adding that the company is "well placed" to support operators in industry, medicine and research in order to meet the practical and logistical challenges of producing and transporting HALEU.

"This represents an exciting next stage in the civil nuclear power industry and we look forward to collaborating with existing and new customers on their requirements and using our expertise to provide a reliable fuel supply for the future demand," Haeberle said.

HALEU will be required to fuel many advanced reactor designs currently under development, including the U-Battery micro small modular reactor concept which was initiated in 2008 by Urenco and developed by the UK's Universities of Manchester Dalton Institute and the Technology University of Delft in the Netherlands. The single-unit gas-cooled reactor design has an output of 4MWe (10MWt) and uses TRISO (tristructural isotropic) fuel.

The Urenco USA enrichment plant at Eunice, New Mexico, is the only uranium enrichment plant currently operating in the USA. Construction of the plant - the first in the USA to use centrifuge enrichment technology - began in 2006 and the plant's first enrichment cascade reached full production in June 2010. By March 2017 the plant had 63 cascades in production. Its current capacity is 4800 tSWU per year, about a third of US enrichment demand.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed converting metallic HALEU - from used fuel from an earlier experimental breeder reactor programme - to fuel to support US companies in the development and deployment of new reactor technologies. The DOE also recently announced plans to award a contract to a subsidiary of Centrus Energy Corp to demonstrate the production of HALEU in a cascade of US-designed 16 AC-100M centrifuges at Piketon, Ohio. Technology that is not of US origin can be used to produce HALEU for use in US civilian advanced reactor applications, but only US-origin technology can be used in both civilian and defence-related advanced reactor applications.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News