The UK may be poised to become the first European country to launch domestic production of high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU). New funding announced by the country’s government this week signifies global momentum to establish a reliable supply of the specialist fuel that will be required for advanced nuclear reactors.
The UK’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero on Jan. 7 announced a £300 million ($382 million) investment to support HALEU production as part of a program that would support its goals to expand its nuclear capacity to 24 GW by 2050. The department also claimed that the program is geared to counter “Russia’s reign as the only commercial producer of HALEU” and “further isolate Putin’s Russia.”
HALEU Development Progressing Around the World
The measure is notable given that global demand for HALEU—a nuclear fuel material enriched to a higher degree (between 5% and 20%) in the fissile isotope U-235—is projected to soar. The material has several uses in fuel for advanced reactors, including molten salt reactors or tristructural isotropic (TRISO). HALEU may also be used in operating reactors (enriched between 5% and 10%), offering better performance.
However, commercial supply of HALEU is only currently available from Russian company TENEX, a Rosatom subsidiary, and recent geopolitical concerns have posed critical supply bottlenecks of the fuel material that will be required for many advanced reactor designs. China also has the infrastructure to produce HALEU at scale, according to the World Nuclear Association.
In the U.S., where the Department of Energy (DOE) posits more than 40 metric tons of HALEU may be needed by 2030, the power industry and government are also working concertedly to develop a HALEU supply chain. Marking a major milestone, Centrus Energy, a firm under a DOE contract to demonstrate production of HALEU with domestic technology, in October 2023, kicked off enrichment operations at its American Centrifuge Plant cascade in Piketon, Ohio. In November, Centrus announced the production of its first 20 kilograms (kg) of HALEU, and it is slated to produce 900 kg per year (kg/y) starting in 2024. Centrus has said a full-scale HALEU cascade—entailing the scale-up of its 16-centrifuge Piketon cascade to 120 centrifuges—could produce about 6,000 kg/y of HALEU, though it stresses the endeavor will require “sufficient funding and offtake commitments.”
The European Union (EU), meanwhile, has been evaluating ways to secure HALEU since 2018. A Eurotom Supply Agency (ESA) working group in a 2022 report suggested the EU’s strategic HALEU demand could soar to 700 kg/y by 2035, and if Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland shun Russian supply, that demand could increase to 1,000 kg/y. The group concluded its best option would be to establish EU HALEU production capability. While installing a facility in the EU would require “6 to 7 years for designing, engineering, licensing, construction, and commissioning,” a first intermediate step the region should take is to maintain a HALEU stockpile or “rolling reserve” based on 10 years of potential needs, the group recommended.
An Energy Security Imperative for the UK
The UK’s imperative to develop a domestic HALEU program is driven by its 2022 British Energy Security Strategy, which lays out plans to add up to eight new nuclear reactors to its six existing reactors—potentially tripling its nuclear capacity. As part of that strategy, the country in March 2023 launched Great British Nuclear (GBN). The entity that operates under the government’s repurposed nuclear energy and fuels firm British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) is tasked with the delivery of new nuclear projects.
In October 2023, GBN unveiled six nuclear designs that will advance to the next phase of the UK’s Small Modular Reactor (SMR) competition, a fast-track measure that could result in a government contract by summer 2024 as part of a strategy to deliver operational SMRs by the mid-2030s. The UK is meanwhile also exploring “advanced modular reactors” (AMRs)—which essentially encapsulate Gen IV reactors—for deployment in the 2040s. In December 2022, the government committed up to £60 million to bolster research into high-temperature gas reactors (HTGRs), a technology the UK has historically demonstrated.
To date, however, the UK’s domestic fleet has mostly comprised gas-cooled reactors (Magnox and advanced gas-cooled reactors). Nearly all its historic and existing reactors have been fueled using a UK-led supply chain for uranium enrichment and fuel fabrication. Recognizing that its future fleet will require a supply chain that will need to meet demand for a range of different fuel types, the country in January 2023 unveiled £75 million of funding through the Nuclear Fuel Fund.
In July 2023, the UK government offered £22.3 million of that funding to eight projects. While more than £10.5 million went to a Westinghouse-led consortium to manufacture a “broader range” of fuel types for gigawatt-scale reactors, SMRs, and AMRs, the fund also doled out £9.5 million to Urenco UK, to help develop low-enriched uranium (LEU) and HALEU enrichment capability at the company’s Capenhurst site in Cheshire.
Industry’s Burgeoning HALEU Opportunity
The UK government (through Enrichment Investments), notably owns a third of Urenco’s shares. Another third of the remaining shares are held by a partnership between German utilities E.ON and RWE Power, and the final third, is held by the the Dutch government through a holding company, Uranit UK.
Urenco, which has enrichment facilities in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and the U.S. (at Eunice in southeastern New Mexico), has been working to expand its product portfolio to LEU+ (enriched uranium up to 10%). Recent activity includes moving forward on license applications and investment decisions to accelerate LEU+ deployment at its facilities in Eunice, New Mexico, and Capenhurst in the UK. “LEU+ is a positive initial step towards the potential production of other advanced fuels (from 10 to 19.75% enriched uranium) for civil nuclear power generation, and a project to create an advanced fuels facility has commenced,” the company said last year.
For its URENCO USA (UUSA) facility in Eunice (which is operated by Louisiana Energy Services)—a $5 billion facility that began operations in 2010 as the only commercial enrichment facility operating in the U.S.—Urenco in November 2023 moved to amend an NRC license to support allowable U-235 enrichment levels to 10% to support industry development and implementation of accident tolerant fuel (ATF). The company anticipates NRC approval by July 2024, and potential delivery by 2025.
But in tandem, Urenco recently provided the NRC with a notice of intent to submit a license amendment to support enrichment of up to 20%, allowing UUSA to produce enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) for HALEU production. “While the exact same centrifuge technology will be used, the arrangement of these centrifuges in a cascade will be configured 16 differently than existing cascades to optimize production of HALEU,” Kirk Schnoebelen, URENCO president, on Dec. 12 told the NRC during a public meeting discussing the Biden administration’s short- and long-term domestic uranium fuel strategy.
“Because very little enrichment work is needed to boost concentrations of U-235 from around 5% to 20%, dedicated HALEU production facilities are anticipated to be co-located at our existing 20 facilities and would have a much smaller footprint than LEU production facilities. Urenco USA is working toward putting together long-term takeoff contracts in place to underwrite the required investments,” he said.
Schnoebelen suggested a broad opportunity for expansion based on the future role of Russian fuel supplies to the West. In 2023, he noted, Russia “was permitted a roughly 24% market share, but that share will drop to 24% next year through 2027, and then 15% from 2028 to 2040.” Industry appears “fairly well positioned to help mitigate against Russian fuel supply disruptions in the near term,” he said. Western capacity to enrich uranium rests mainly on centrifuge technology, with the benefit that capacity can be added incrementally without affecting existing operations, he added.
“Prior to the invasion, a non-trivial fraction of total western capacity was operating in an underfeeding mode which means that more enrichment work was being used to produce the enriched uranium required by customers than they were paying for, and less natural uranium was being used than customers were delivering,” he explained. “Reversing this underfeeding mode of operations means the same enrichment capacity can be used to produce more enriched uranium,” he said. “There is a catch, however, insofar as this strategy requires more natural uranium,” Schnoebelen noted. “Happily, this requirement has coincided with the return to service of the uranium conversion facility in Illinois and the debugging of operations at the brand-new uranium conversion facility in France.”
Yet another way to mitigate against Russian fuel supply disruption in the near term “is to boost production of enriched uranium by refurbishing existing cascades of centrifuges. Although centrifuges are designed to be extraordinarily long-lasting, they do fail with some statistical certainty,” he said. “Finally, there are known inventories of enriched uranium that can be used to help immediately replace disrupted Russian fuel deliveries,” he said. Between available U.S. government and Japanese nuclear power operators, “inventories of enriched uranium are estimated to be equal to about one year of total U.S. demand.”
New Capabilities Will Require Investment, Certainty
While Urenco has not formally announced any expansion plans in Europe, “there’s potential for another 3.6 million SWU per year under current licenses at its three existing facilities,” Schnoebelen said.
Nuclear fuel giant Orano, notably, in October 2023 announced it would increase uranium enrichment capacity at its Georges Besse 2 facility in France by nearly a third by 2028. Orano said, “Future enhanced supply remains under consideration to support advanced reactor fuels with enrichments up to 6% for LEU+ (Low Enriched Uranium) and up to 19.75% for HALEU in various fuel forms.”
Both Urenco and Orano have underscored, however, a need to underwrite the significant capital investments that will be required to expand enrichment capacity in Europe with long-term contracts. In October, Orano noted that supplying a “wide range” of advanced reactor concepts will require “new dedicated enrichment capacity along with associated chemistry services (deconversion) to produce the variety of fuel forms desired by the market.” The significant investments require firm commitments by reactor developers or government entities, it noted. “With firm customer commitments, Orano is prepared to supply enrichment up to 6% by 2025 and up to 19.75% thereafter, as driven by demand.”
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Author: Sonal Patel