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War highlights uranium worry for the advanced nuclear industry

Ural Electrochemical Integrated Plant Director General Alexander Belousov stands next to gas centrifuges for uranium isotope separation in a separation workshop of the plant, in Novouralsk, about 40 miles northwest of Yekaterinburg, Russia. Advanced nuclear reactors like the one that TerraPower wants to build in Kemmerer require a type of enriched uranium that’s currently only available in Russia.

Unlike existing nuclear power plants in the U.S., most next-generation nuclear designs, including the one proposed for Kemmerer, require a type of fuel with only one commercial source: Russia.

Wyoming leaders have pushed TerraPower to power its facility with local uranium since the project was announced last summer. In the days after Russia invaded Ukraine, with the U.S. and its allies now looking to cut ties with the Russian energy sector in the coming years, those calls have intensified.

“We shouldn’t be dependent on Russia for anything,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-WY, said before the state House of Representatives on Friday. “America is an energy superpower. We need to continue to act like it.”

On Tuesday, a proposed amendment to a bill modifying Wyoming’s nuclear siting requirements, which would’ve barred TerraPower from using Russian uranium in its reactor, failed in the House. A budget amendment that would give tax breaks to nuclear plants in exchange for using domestic uranium passed and was adopted, but has yet to clear the Legislature.

A few decades ago, Wyoming was one of the biggest uranium producers in the world. It’s still the No. 1 uranium state. But the U.S. uranium industry is in rough shape, and establishing a domestic nuclear supply chain isn’t as simple as it sounds.

Nuclear fuel production is a multi-step process. After uranium is extracted, usually through a method called in-situ leaching, it has to be processed into a concentrated powder known as yellowcake. That powder must then be enriched before it can be turned into the fuel rods used to power reactors.

While the U.S. relies primarily on uranium imported from Canada, Kazakhstan, Russia and a number of other countries, it’s home to plenty of uranium deposits, especially in Wyoming. It has a number of mines — though most are inactive or operating very little — and the ability to process current production.

What commercial enrichment capacity the U.S. does have is only equipped to make the fuel used in today’s reactors, which contains up to 5% of the fissile isotope U-235. TerraPower’s plant would use fuel enriched to about 19.5% U-235.

According to Jeff Navin, director of external affairs for TerraPower, using more highly enriched fuel boosts the reactor’s energy efficiency and reduces its waste.

Efforts to produce the fuel in the U.S. are gaining momentum, but commercialization is still years away. TerraPower has allocated a portion of its $2 billion Department of Energy grant in an effort to get there more quickly.

“This investment was made with the knowledge that we cannot rely on unstable countries like Russia for advanced reactor fuel,” Navin said in a statement emailed to the Star-Tribune on Wednesday. “We knew this before the invasion of Ukraine, but Russia’s recent actions make this even more clear today.”

TerraPower has said since summer that it hopes to use Wyoming uranium — eventually. Bound to a tight seven-year timeline mandated by Congress, it’s also been up-front about the limitations of sourcing the more highly enriched fuel.

“There isn’t time to use Wyoming uranium in this reactor, because it needs to be enriched and manufactured into fuel assemblies,” TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque said during a meeting with Glenrock community leaders in June.

But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the company has been clear: “TerraPower does not want Russian HALEU in our reactor,” Navin said. He said Congressional action, including funding for the Advanced Fuel Availability Program, can help ensure TerraPower has an alternative supplier in time.

Source: The Wyoming Tribune Eagle