Agreement ensures demo Natrium plant's HALEU needs will be met

18 July 2023

TerraPower and Centrus Energy Corp have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to significantly expand their collaboration aimed at establishing commercial-scale, US production capabilities for high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) to supply TerraPower's first-of-a-kind Natrium reactor and energy storage system.

A rendering of a Natrium plant (Image: TerraPower)

TerraPower - a company largely funded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates - announced plans in September 2020 to team up with nuclear fuel and services provider Centrus to establish commercial-scale, domestic production capabilities for HALEU. The following year, the companies entered into a contract for services to help expedite the commercialisation of domestic enrichment technology at Centrus's Piketon, Ohio, facility.

In December last year, TerraPower said it expected operation of the Natrium demonstration reactor to be delayed by at least two years because there will not be sufficient commercial capacity to manufacture HALEU fuel in time to meet the proposed 2028 in-service date.

Kemmerer in Wyoming was selected in 2021 as the preferred site for the Natrium demonstration project, featuring a 345 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system.

Under the new MoU, Centrus and TerraPower will collaborate to ensure the Natrium demonstration reactor has access to HALEU at the milestones necessary to meet the project's 2030 operation date. The two companies will establish a cost-competitive and timely source of enrichment capacity in the USA at Centrus' HALEU production facility in Piketon, Ohio.

Centrus began construction of the demonstration cascade of 16 centrifuges in 2019 under contract with the US Department of Energy, and last year secured a further USD150 million of cost-shared funding to finish the cascade, complete final regulatory steps, begin operating the cascade, and produce up to 20 kg of HALEU by the end of this year.

In February, Centrus completed the operational readiness review for its HALEU production facility and in June received permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to begin operation. As part of this MoU, Centrus will work toward scaling up production capacity with additional centrifuge cascades to meet TerraPower's fuel requirements.

"TerraPower is committed to a successful and timely delivery of the Natrium demonstration reactor," said TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque. "This expanded collaboration with Centrus represents TerraPower's commitment to reinvigorating the domestic supply chain as we bring advanced reactors to market within the decade. Generation IV reactors are the solution we need for the energy grid of the future and this MoU will ensure we can fuel these reactors for decades to come."

"Centrus is ready to pioneer US HALEU production and to meet the needs of TerraPower in bringing their advanced reactor to market," added Centrus President and CEO Daniel Poneman.  "American HALEU production is vital for deploying US-designed advanced nuclear reactors. Establishing the domestic HALEU supply chain is critical for our energy independence."

Existing reactors typically operate on low-enriched uranium, usually containing up to 5% uranium-235. HALEU fuel, which is enriched to between 5% and 20% uranium-235, will be required by many advanced reactor designs that are under development in both the commercial and government sectors, but such fuel is not yet commercially available. HALEU offers improved reactor economics, greater fuel efficiency, enhanced safety and proliferation resistance, lower volumes of waste and other advantages.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News