Enrichment operations start at US HALEU plant

12 October 2023

US nuclear fuel and services company Centrus Energy Corp has begun enrichment operations at the American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio. The company said it expects to begin withdrawing high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) product later this month.

The HALEU cascade at the Piketon site (Image: Centrus)

Centrus said the American Centrifuge Plant is the only HALEU facility in the USA licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the first new US-owned, US-technology uranium enrichment plant to begin production since 1954.

"This moment holds great pride - and promise - for the nation," said Centrus President and CEO Daniel Poneman. "We hope that this demonstration cascade will soon be joined by thousands of additional centrifuges right here in Piketon to produce the HALEU needed to fuel the next generation of advanced reactors, low-enriched-uranium to sustain the existing fleet of reactors, and the enriched uranium needed to sustain our nuclear deterrent for generations to come. This is how the United States can recover its lost nuclear independence."

HALEU fuel contains uranium enriched to between 5% and 20% uranium-235 - higher than the uranium fuel used in light-water reactors currently in operation, which typically contains up to 5% uranium-235. It will be needed by most of the advanced reactor designs being developed under the US Department of Energy's (DOE's) Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. The lack of a commercial supply chain to support these reactors has prompted the DOE to launch a programme to stimulate the development of a domestic source of HALEU.

Centrus began construction of the demonstration cascade of 16 centrifuges in 2019 under contract with the DOE, 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 June, Centrus announced it had successfully completed its operational readiness reviews with the NRC and received approval from the regulator to possess uranium at the Piketon site - the last major regulatory hurdle prior to beginning production.

Since then, Centrus has been conducting final system tests and other preparations so that production could begin.

The company noted it met every required milestone on time and on budget during construction of the cascade and is starting production two months earlier than scheduled under the competitively-awarded, cost-shared contract the company signed with the DOE in 2022.

Centrus said the capacity of the 16-centrifuge cascade is modest - about 900 kilograms of HALEU per year - but with sufficient funding and offtake commitments, the company could significantly expand production. It says a full-scale HALEU cascade, consisting of 120 centrifuge machines, with a combined capacity to produce some 6000 kilograms of HALEU per year, could be brought online within about 42 months of securing the necessary funding. Centrus said it could add a second HALEU cascade six months later and subsequent cascades every two months after that.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News