Passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last Monday had some nice things for nuclear energy. The overall Bill is a $1.2 trillion for everything from bridges and roads to the nation’s broadband, water and energy systems.
Nuclear got about $25 billion, distributed as:
– $3.2 billion (to FY2027) Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP)
– $21.5 billion (to 2025) for an Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations in DOE including:
- $6 billion civil nuclear credit program to preserve the existing nuclear fleet and prevent premature shutdowns of nuclear power plants like Diablo Canyon pictured above
- $8 billion for clean hydrogen hubs,
- $10 billion for carbon capture,
- $1 billion for demonstration projects in rural areas and
- $0.5 billion for demonstration projects in economically hard-hit communities
- $0.5 billion for new clean energy demonstration on mine lands
- assistance for siting micro-reactors, small modular reactors, and advanced nuclear reactors in isolated communities
- provides federal government authority to transfer real property for advanced reactor demonstrations and authorizes longer term protections for intellectual property related to nuclear technology used in demonstrations
- changes to the DOE Loan Program making it more usable by reducing the credit subsidy costs that borrowers must pay
Because clean energy is defined in this Bill to include advanced nuclear, it could help nuclear in other ways as well. Investment plans in the Bill range from more than $7 billion for the supply chain for batteries to $3.5 billion for a weatherization assistance program. $11 billion would be invested in grants for states, tribes and utilities to bolster the resilience of the power grid against events such as cyberattacks and extreme weather, something at which nuclear excels.
While most focus is on new and advanced reactors, à la the ARDP, there is a critical component that usually lacks attention – the fuel.
Many of the new reactor designs require a more enriched fuel, called high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU). And even existing designs can perform better with higher amounts of uranium-235 or plutonium-239.
Natural uranium is only 0.7% uranium-235 (U-235), which splits easily. The rest is U-238, which does not. The fuel has to be enriched to around 5% U-235 in order to maintain a continuous chain reaction in most nuclear reactors. The exception is the CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium)/PHWR (Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor) reactors, like Pickering pictured below, which use natural uranium and heavy water (D2O – deuterium is hydrogen with one neutron in its nucleus).
However, it has long been known that higher levels of U-235 enrichment will provide more energy per mass of fuel, provide longer life for the reactor core, will allow smaller plant sizes, and give a higher burn-up rate for nuclear waste.
The world’s existing fleet of light water reactors (LWRs) use fuel enriched to about 5% U-235. But many advanced reactor concepts require HALEU, which is enriched to a higher degree – between 5% and 20%. CANDU/PHWR reactors can especially benefit from HALEU.
The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station consists of six operating and two shut down CANDU reactors … [+]
Above 20% enrichment is considered highly enriched for use in military applications and not acceptable for international civilian applications.
But we don’t produce much HALEU in America. Earlier this year, two former U.S. government officials, Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr. and Admiral Richard Mies, published an article in the Atlantic Council about the need for the U.S. government to ensure a sufficient HALEU supply to enable new generation reactors to deploy in reasonable numbers.
Some companies have stepped up. Centrus Energy Corp has signed non-binding Letters of Intent with various companies to cooperate in the deployment of a production facility for high-assay low-enriched uranium to support the commercialization of advanced fission plants and existing designs. The company says it is committed to working towards establishing a robust domestic HALEU production capability.
But as exciting as the new ARDP funding is, commercially available, cost effective and scalable reactors are unlikely to be built in significant numbers before 2035. Therefore, they won’t generate the necessary early demand signal for HALEU production that will prime the production of sufficient quantities of HALEU in America to support them when they do. Companies may be compelled to look to Russia and elsewhere, something anathema to the intent of this Bill and to the concept of build back better.
Since one of the main goals of the Bill is to encourage and support manufacturing in America, both for domestic use and for export, what is needed now, both as an insurance policy and to have as many viable alternatives as possible, is to look to existing reactors worldwide that can use alternative fuels which incorporate HALEU and that have the potential to achieve significant benefits right now.
One such reactor is the CANDU/PHWR reactors which can especially benefit from HALEU. It doesn’t matter that they are in other countries such as Canada. And one such innovative fuel design using HALEU is from the U.S.-based company called Clean Core Thorium Energy (Clean Core). Their fuel, called Advanced Nuclear Energy for Enriched Life, or ANEEL, combines thorium (Th) and high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) to address cost, proliferation and waste. There is no reprocessing involved with this fuel.
Clean Core is already partnered with the United States Department of Energy (DOE), Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and the Nuclear Engineering & Science Center at Texas A&M to develop and qualify the ANEEL fuel. This fuel, being made-in-America, positions it as a prime candidate for export to Canada and India, and to emerging nuclear markets where CANDU reactors are ideal, something that the Departments of State and Energy appreciate.
Clean Core plans to go-to-market with this technology by the end of 2024. The HALEU fuel would be made in America and exported, just what the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is supposed to encourage.
It would be a quick win for the Bill, for America and for nuclear.