HALEU fuel availability delays Natrium reactor project

15 December 2022

TerraPower has said it expects operation of the Natrium demonstration reactor to be delayed by at least two years because there will not be sufficient commercial capacity to manufacture high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel in time to meet the proposed 2028 in-service date.

A rendering of a Natrium plant (Image: Terrapower)

The company's CEO and President Chris Levesque said Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February caused "the only commercial source of HALEU fuel" to no longer be a viable part of the supply chain. The company has since then been working with the US Department of Energy (DOE), Congressional allies, and project stakeholders to explore potential alternative sources, and "while we are working now with Congress to urge the inclusion of UDS2.1 billion to support HALEU in the end of year government funding package, 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."

The company will fully update its schedule in 2023 when outcomes of such measures are known, he said. "But given the lack of fuel availability now, and that there has been no construction started on new fuel enrichment facilities, TerraPower is anticipating a minimum of a two-year delay to being able to bring the Natrium reactor into operation."

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. TerraPower remains fully committed to the project and is "moving full steam ahead" on construction of the plant, licensing applications and engineering and design work, Levesque added. Work scheduled to begin in Spring 2023 on the large sodium facility will continue as planned, and TerraPower expects "minimal disruption" to the current projected start-of-construction date.

Private funding of more than USD830 million raised by the company this year and USD1.6 billion appropriated by the US Congress for the project will be used to ensure that the Natrium demonstration plant is completed, Levesque said.

HALEU fuel is enriched to between 5% and 20% uranium-235, and will be needed to fuel most of the next-generation advanced reactor designs. The DOE has projected a national need for more than 40 tonnes of HALEU before the end of the decade to support the current administration's goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035.

Even before the conflict in Ukraine, the USA had begun taking steps to build a domestic supply chain for the material. The HALEU Availability Program, established under the Energy Act of 2020, supports the availability of HALEU for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use, and the DOE recently set up the HALEU Consortium to help inform its activities to secure a domestic supply of the material. It has awarded Centrus subsidiary American Centrifuge Operating LLC a USD150 million cost-shared, two-phase, contract to complete and bring online a demonstration cascade of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges at Piketon in Ohio, which is currently the only US facility which is licensed to produce HALEU, and to run it for a year at an annual production rate of 900 kg of HALEU.

Call to action

On 8 November, a bipartisan group of US senators led by John Barrasso, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, wrote to Senate appropriators urging action to secure funding for DOE's HALEU initiatives.

Responding to TerraPower's announcement, Barrasso said the USA " must reestablish itself as the global leader in nuclear energy. Instead of relying on our adversaries like Russia for uranium, the United States must produce its own supply of advanced nuclear fuel."

He said he has sent a letter to Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin requesting an oversight hearing early next year to ensure that DOE is "working aggressively" to make HALEU available for the USA's first advanced reactors. He also said he has written to Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm today "blasting DOE for not moving fast enough to ensure a domestic supply of HALEU".

Researched and written by World Nuclear News