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DOE targets end to US reliance on Russian nuclear fuel, revived domestic capability

Dive Brief:

  • The Department of Energy is working to end U.S. reliance on Russia for nuclear fuel, Secretary Dan Brouillette told members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy last week.
  • The department’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group wants American-sourced uranium and plans to begin processing U.S. uranium into high-grade fuel at a DOE facility in Portsmouth, Ohio, as early as next year, Brouillette said. The high-grade fuel is particularly important for new and smaller commercial reactors that DOE considers critical to grid stability as renewables replace aging fossil fuel power plants, he said.
  • Brouillette also said the government has been able to blunt cyber attacks on the U.S. power grid “from places like Russia” and is working to ban Chinese-made grid equipment it believes could contain spyware, he told the subcommittee.


Dive Insight:

DOE is working to establish domestic fuel sources for both current and future reactors with its initiatives to create a U.S. uranium reserve and develop high energy fuel rods.

Regarding the latter, DOE has moved centrifuges from its Oak Ridge laboratories to a mothballed uranium processing plant built in the 1950s at Portsmouth, Ohio, Brouillette told lawmakers. The department expects to begin processing to produce “high-assay low-enriched uranium,” or HALEU, next year.

In addition, DOE is working with Rep. Robert Latta, an Ohio Republican and a member of the subcommittee, on legislation authorizing the creation of the uranium reserve.

“I think it is absolutely critical that we further develop the front end of the fuel cycle,” Brouillette said. “We have lost our leadership edge in America with regard to the provision of nuclear power. And today… the vast majority of the fuel purchased by the civilian nuclear fleet in the United Sates is … primarily from Russia.”

The DOE envisions creating uraniaum reserve, including conversion and enrichment processes, “to ensure the security of our fleet and to ensure the provision of electric power in the U.S.,” Brouillette said.

Industry and NGO representatives did not agree with Brouillette’s assertions regarding U.S. reliance on Russian nuclear fuel.

Brouillette overstated the U.S. commercial nuclear industry’s dependence of Russian uranium ore, Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Utility Dive. “Most of it comes from Australia and Canada,” he said. Industry sources put the amount coming from Russia at 20%.

The DOE did not respond to a request to clarify Brouillette’s statements.

Lyman said U.S. uranium producers had previously asked the Trump administration to impose tariffs on imported uranium. The administration instead proposed creating the domestic uranium reserve, which Congress has yet to fund. Only U.S.-mined uranium would be stored in the reserve, said Lyman, helping to keep struggling U.S. miners in operation.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a trade group representing the industry, supports the idea of a domestic reserve, though U.S. geology makes uranium mined here more expensive than ore mined elsewhere.

“We remain supportive of establishing a uranium reserve as outlined in the Nuclear Fuel Working Group report as a key component of maintaining domestic fuel cycle capabilities,” said Nima Ashkeboussi, director of fuel cycle programs at NEI, in a written comment to Utility Dive.

While efforts to establish a uranium reserve proceed, the administration’s plan to produce the HALEU reactor fuels with higher concentrations of uranium-235 is not without controversy.

The NEI over a year ago asked the DOE to begin a HALEU project as a way to ensure the development of advanced reactors after surveying reactor developers and determining the absence of a high-energy fuel supply could stymie further commercial development.

“The development, demonstration, and deployment of many advanced nuclear technologies is in jeopardy since there is no certainty that a HALEU fuel infrastructure will be in place when they are ready to enter the market,” NEI President and CEO Maria Korsnick, wrote in a letter to the DOE.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which does not oppose nuclear energy, says there is no reason for the government to begin producing HALEU until commercial reactors are built that require it. Lyman said a number of independent fuel companies are committed to producing the fuel if such reactors are built.

Currently operating reactors use fuel that contains no more than 5% U-235. The HALEU fuel would contain between 5% and 19% U-235. Many of the proposed smaller reactors would use HALEU fuel, Brouillette told the House subcommittee.

Concentrations of U-235 higher than 20% are typically considered weapons grade, Lyman said. The hotter fuel would be very close to weapons-grade material and would come at a time when the United States is trying to prevent other countries from producing such material, he added.

Source: Utility Dive