Feb. 2024
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U.S. Seeks Home-Grown Enriched Uranium for Advanced Reactors

On January 9, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued a request for proposals (RFP) for contractors to help establish the domestic production of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), a material used in the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors.

"Nuclear energy currently provides almost half of the nation's carbon-free power, and it will continue to play a significant part in transitioning to a clean-energy future," U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a press release.

White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi added that boosting the domestic uranium supply won't just advance zero-carbon goals, but will increase the nation's energy security. The fuel currently is only available in commercial levels from Russia, according to Reuters.

The existing U.S. fleet of reactors runs on uranium fuel that is enriched up to 5% with uranium-235. However, most U.S. advanced reactors require HALEU, which is enriched between 5% to 20%, to achieve smaller and more versatile designs. HALEU also will allow developers to optimize their systems for longer life cores, increased efficiencies and better fuel utilization, according to the DOE.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 will provide up to $500 million for HALEU enrichment contracts up to 10 years and a separate one, released in November, is for services to deconvert the enriched uranium into metal, oxide and other forms to be used as fuel for advanced reactors. Once enriched, the HALEU will be stored on site until there is a need to ship it to deconverters.

The DOE projects that more than 40 metric tons of HALEU could be needed before the end of the decade, with additional amounts required each year, to deploy a new fleet of advanced reactors in time to support the Biden administration's goal of 100% "clean" electricity generation by 2035.

All nuclear power in the U.S. currently is generated by light water reactors (LWRs), which were commercialized in the 1950s and early 1960s, according to a document released last year by the Congressional Research Service. LWRs are cooled by ordinary ("light") water, which also slows the neutrons that maintain the nuclear fission chain reaction.

High construction costs of large conventional LWRs, concerns about safety raised by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, growing volumes of nuclear waste, and other issues have led to increased interest in unconventional, or advanced, nuclear technologies that proponents say could be less expensive, safer and more fuel-efficient than existing LWRs.

In November, the DOE reached a milestone under its HALEU demonstration project when a domestic company produced the nation's first 20 kilograms of HALEU, according to the department.

Centrus Energy Corporation (NYSE:LEU) (Bethesda, Maryland) announced on November 7 it made its first delivery of HALEU to the DOE, completing the first phase of its contract by demonstrating its HALEU production project. Centrus Energy and the DOE each contributed about $30 million to the first phase.

The second phase requires a full year of HALEU production at a rate of 900 kilograms per year at Centrus Energy's centrifuge plant in Piketon, Ohio. Subscribers to Industrial Info's Global Market Intelligence (GMI) Chemical Processing Plant Database can click here for a plant profile of the Piketon facility.

Centrus Energy President and Chief Executive Officer Daniel Poneman said in a press release his company is "committed to working with the (DOE) and industry to build a public-private partnership so that we can scale up production in the coming years to meet the full range of commercial and national security requirements for enriched uranium."

Centrus Energy said it could expand production from the current 900 kilograms per year of HALEU to 6,000 kilograms per year within 42 months after securing the necessary funding.