Certainty of demand key to HALEU supply, says Orano

15 March 2022

Ensuring a steady demand for high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) is one of the two main challenges to achieving sustainable production of the material, Orano has said in response to a US Department of Energy (DOE) request for information (RFI).

(Image: DOE)

The DOE issued the RFI in December 2021, seeking input on its plans to create a new programme to assure the availability of the material which is needed for the needed for the demonstration and commercial deployment of advanced reactors.

HALEU fuel is enriched to between 5% and 20% uranium-235, whereas most of today's light water reactors use uranium fuel enriched to 3-5%.

Most of the advanced reactor designs currently being developed in the USA are based on HALEU fuel, which enable them to achieve smaller designs, longer operating cycles, and better efficiencies, but the fuel is not yet available at commercial scale from domestic suppliers. According to the RFI, this is a significant obstacle to the development and deployment of advanced reactors for commercial applications.

Orano provided content and recommendations based on its six decades of experience operating its uranium conversion and enrichment facilities in France and providing nuclear material transportation packaging and services for international customers.

A successful, sutainable DOE approach will ensure that future HALEU fuel production is available when needed, provided in the variety of physical forms required by different reactor designs, and commercially cost-competitive, but challenges to achieving this are primarily centered on two concerns, Orano said. These are, firstly, the development of conversion and enrichment technology that is both reliable and proven in operation, and secondly, addressing commercial investment risk by ensuring steady demand for HALEU production.

"Driving these concerns is the potential situation where investors are reluctant to put money into advanced reactor construction without an established fuel supply, and fuel suppliers are equally unwilling to license and construct the necessary enrichment and deconversion capabilities until they have received commercial commitments that guarantee a certain volume of demand," the company said.

"Orano's assessment shows that the single most important factor enabling success is a firm and meaningful HALEU quantity commitment by DOE."

Within public-private partnerships, technology risk should be borne primarily by industry in alignment with existing commercial expertise in enrichment, deconversion, packaging, and logistics, it added.

The RFI was published in the US Federal Register on 14 December 2021 with an initial deadline for comments of 14 January. This was subsequently extended to 14 February.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News