Many of the new nuclear reactors under development are designed to run on uranium at enrichments as high as 15%-19.75%, known as high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), rather than traditional Light Water Reactor (LWR) technology, which typically uses uranium enriched to 3%-5%.
The only commercial source of HALEU, however, is Russia.
The invasion of Ukraine, and Russia’s consequent political and commercial isolation, has left many developers of next generation reactors concerned that, without a concerted effort to rebuild non-Russian supply chains, there will not be enough fuel.
“It’s unfortunate that the United States got over a barrel in this way. It took decades to get to this sort of abject level of dependence. The country went from the world’s largest exporter to the world’s largest importer, through a variety of missteps and mishaps,” says Dan Poneman, Chief Executive Officer of U.S. nuclear fuel company Centrus Energy.
TerraPower, a nuclear reactor developer founded by Bill Gates and winner of Department of Energy (DOE) funding as part of the U.S. Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), said the invasion would mean a delay to the deployment of its Natrium reactor by at least two years.
“It has become clear that domestic and allied HALEU manufacturing options will not reach commercial capacity in time to meet the proposed 2028 in-service date for the Natrium demonstration plant,” Chris Levesque, President and CEO of TerraPower, said in a statement last December.
TerraPower and Centrus announced a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in July to expand collaboration efforts and establish U.S.-based commercial-scale HALEU production to supply its first-of-a-kind Natrium reactor.
CHART: Uranium production and reactor requirements in nuclear power countries in 2022
Renewed interest in nuclear power, as a low-emission energy supplier and amid uncertainty over fossil-fuel supply chains, means greater investments will be needed in all kinds of nuclear fuel, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) said in its most recent biennial ‘Nuclear Fuel Report 2023’.
“The tripling of nuclear capacity needed by 2050 as part of a global strategy to reach net-zero will require investment in a significant expansion of nuclear fuel supply worldwide, as much as it will need investment in new nuclear capacity worldwide, over and above current nuclear fuel supply chains,” says WNA analyst Jonathan Cobb.
“The potential increase in demand for HALEU due to the potential new wave of advanced reactor designs would need to be met by a significant expansion of HALEU supply, regardless of current sources of supply.”
The first step for the industry to address a looming fuel bottleneck is admitting there could be a problem matching supply with demand, according to ConverDyn CEO Malcolm Critchley who served as co-chair of the working group responsible for drafting the WNA report.
“Some of these projects need to be accelerated and there needs to be incentives for that to happen … We are running out of time, and there needs to be more collaboration between buyers and suppliers,” Critchley said during the World Nuclear Symposium 2023.
“I don’t think we can just sit back and hope that sort of organic demand will ultimately result in supply.”
Enrichment in the U.S. was once a government monopoly, but it turned the business over to the private sector in the sixties.
“Not so much freeing it as setting it adrift,” Matthew Wald, independent analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, wrote in the second of a three-part series for the American Nuclear Institute (ANS) ‘The U.S. nuclear fuel Gordian knot: From global supplier to vulnerable customer.’
“We find ourselves in this position as a result of the general reluctance of Washington to get into industrial activities or even industrial policy, even if that means leaving critical industries adrift in an economic environment too rough for the private sector,” Wald wrote.
Nuclear sector concerns are now being heard in Washington, however.
Last year, the U.S. government passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) which offered some $700 million, with $500 million for HALEU production, with an additional $100 million to start a HALEU transportation system and another $100 million for research, development, demonstration, and commercial use.
While this is a start, it falls short of the $3.5 billion the new Nuclear Fuel Security Act (NFSA) says is needed to encourage a diversity of suppliers and technology.
The bill calls on the DOE to arrange two or more contracts with members of the newly-formed HALEU Consortium to begin acquiring not less than 3 metric tons (MTU) per year of HALEU by September 30, 2024, rising to 20 MTU/year by December 31, 2027.
The legislation earned widespread bi-partisan support, passing 96-3 in the Senate, but finding the necessary funds and allocating them will be complicated in a legislative environment that contains elements that are working to disrupt even the day-to-day workings of the U.S. government.
“We’ll wait and see exactly how that plays out, but it is number 11 on Congress’ top 10 list of things to do and number one is that the government runs out of money on September 30,” says the Breakthrough Institute’s Wald, referring to threats by some Republicans to block the budget for the fiscal year starting October 1.