The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has granted Global Nuclear Fuel—Americas (GNF) its first-ever authorization to produce nuclear fuel with uranium-235 (U-235) enrichments up to 8% for commercial power generation.
GNF, GE Vernova’s nuclear fuel arm, on Feb. 15 said the NRC approved a license amendment that will allow its nuclear fuel fabrication facility located near Wilmington, North Carolina, to produce the special nuclear fuel (SNF) material, also known as low enriched uranium plus (LEU+). The fuel facility’s previous SNM–1097 license allowed GNF to possess and use U-235 enriched up to 5% for the fabrication of commercial nuclear power fuel.
The NRC last year issued a certificate of compliance that will allow GNF to ship nuclear fuel bundles of up to 8% using GNF’s RAJ-II shipping container, a specialized package designed to transport boiling water reactor (BWR) fuel assemblies. In addition, “NRC has also approved licensing topical reports for advanced nuclear methods that enable GNF to analyze fuel with enrichments greater than 5 weight percent,” GNF noted on Wednesday.
“These regulatory milestones build on our long history of designing and fabricating fuel for the nuclear industry,” said Mike Chilton, GNF executive vice president.
A Major Milestone for Higher Enrichment Fuel
The NRC’s first approval for fuel fabrications with enrichments up to 8 wt. % U-235 for use in commercial power production marks a major milestone for the nuclear sector, which has been working to implement higher-enrichment fuels. “Higher enrichment fuels are anticipated to improve nuclear fuel cycle economics, including through power uprates for existing boiling water reactors and also for the next generation of reactor technology, including advanced and small modular reactors,” GNF noted on Wednesday.
Nuclear fuel enrichment generally falls into three “buckets” that describe a range for the percent composition of the isotope of U-235: low-enriched uranium (LEU), high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), and LEU+, and high-enriched uranium (HEU).
The nuclear energy industry has traditionally operated with LEU, uranium enriched to 5 weight %. LEU dominates the industrial supply chain and regulatory frameworks, while HALEU describes a nuclear material enrichment range spanning from 5 weight % to 19.75%. LEU+ generally describes a range of between 5% to 10 weight %. HEU enriched above 20% is typically used in research and test reactors and by the Navy. Several advanced reactor technologies, including gas-cooled, liquid metal, or molten salt designs, will require LEU+ at 6% or HALEU at 19.75%.
Since 2018, bolstered by the U.S. Department of Energy, the nuclear industry has also made steady progress in implementing accident-tolerant fuels (ATF). The new technologies in the form of new cladding and/or fuel pellet designs can be paired with fuel enrichments of up to 10% (LEU+) to increase operational flexibility, longer fuel cycles, and support power uprates. A recent Nuclear Energy Industry (NEI) baseline survey of 19 NEI member companies that operate 80 commercial power reactors in the U.S. suggests at least 20 sites have expressed “varying levels of interest/planning” for ATF.
For now, the first ATF lead test assemblies (LTAs) with a weight greater than 5% are slated to be loaded in 2025 at Southern Co.’s Plant Vogtle Unit 2. Southern Nuclear, Southern Co.’s nuclear arm, has told POWER the assemblies will couple Westinghouse’s High Energy Fuel initiative and the EnCore Fuel program, The fuel will feature enrichments up to 6%. The assemblies will feature “ADOPT uranium dioxide pellets, AXIOM fuel rod cladding, and chromium-coated cladding combined with Westinghouse’s advanced PRIME fuel assembly design,” Southern Nuclear has noted.
Southern Nuclear received the NRC’s first-of-a-kind approval for the use of ATF fuel in September 2023. The significant milestone makes Vogtle 2 the first U.S. power reactor authorized to operate ATF fuel rods to burnup levels exceeding the current regulatory limits.
While GNF now has approval NRC is reviewing submittals from two other fuel fabrications seeking higher enrichments, an NRC spokesman said. These include TRISO-X’s November 2022–accepted license application to allow it to build and operate a new fuel fabrication facility in Oak Ridge, Tennesse. TRISO-X fuel, The NRC intends to complete its review by June 2025 at a cost of $4.9 million.
At an NRC commissioners briefing on Dec. 12, 2023, GNF LWR Fuel Product Director Rich Augi noted that along with license amendments sought by Southern Nuclear and Constellation, GNF, Framatome, and Westinghouse have also been proceeding in license submittals. “Each vendor has submitted [a] fresh fuel shipping container. I believe all three have now received their license there for higher enrichment.”
According to Augi, GNF is continuing to pursue innovation under its advanced fuel program. “We’ve been pushing to develop new technologies like our armor-coated cladding and advanced materials research to provide accident tolerant benefit,” he said. “We’ve been successful in installing and operating lead test assemblies of both ARMOR and IronClad, our iron, chrome, and aluminum cladding at Plant Hatch and Clinton Power Station, and have successfully transported irradiated material from the reactor site to the Oak Ridge National Lab.”
The early installations will “provide key performance information needed to drive technologies to industrial application. And with the development and licensing of advanced methods and materials, GNF is embarking on developing the next generation of fuel product,” he said.
GNF Has Started Process to License HALEU Fabrication Facility
Looking ahead, GNF plans to expand its advanced fuel manufacturing capabilities by potentially building out a supply chain for advanced reactors. In October 2022, TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) announced they would build a fuel fabrication facility to create reliable fuel for the 345-MWe Natrium pool-type sodium fast reactor (SFR) demonstration in Wyoming and future Natrium plants at GNF’s Wilmington facility. Construction of the power plant, slated to begin in 2023, was delayed to 2025, given a lack of HALEU.
The Natrium fuel facility will be jointly funded by TerraPower and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), Augi said. It “represents an investment of more than $200 million into advanced fuel fabrication,” he noted.
GNF-A has already kicked off a process to license the standalone Category II fuel fabrication facility. After GNF expressed intent to submit a license amendment request (LAR) for the HALEU fabrication facility in October 2021, in March 2023, the NRC granted it an exemption to submit the LAR in two parts. While it submitted the first part, a supplemental environmental report, in March, it told the NRC in July that the complete LAR would be delayed about two years. It is now anticipated to be submitted in the third quarter of 2025, the NRC recently reported.
To date, only one other fuel fabrication facility is seeking NRC review, an NRC spokesman noted on Wednesday. The regulatory body in November 2022 accepted nuclear technology firm X-energy’s TRISO-X license application to allow it to build and operate a new fuel fabrication facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The NRC intends to complete its review by June 2025 at a cost of $4.9 million.
TRISO-X broke ground on the fuel fabrication facility in October 2022, and it is expected to be commissioned in 2025. X-energy anticipates the facility’s produced tri-structural isotropic (TRISO) particle fuel, which will use HALEU, will support its Xe-100 reactor design.
X-energy is slated to demonstrate a proposed four-unit 320-MWe Xe-100 advanced nuclear reactor facility at a Dow chemical materials manufacturing site in Seadrift, Calhoun County, Texas. X-energy is now working to submit a construction permit for the project, which is part of the part of the DOE’s ARDP. Construction on the four-reactor project is expected to begin in 2026 and to be completed by the end of this decade.
GEH’s 300-MW BWRX-300, meanwhile, will use a GNF2, a “proven nuclear fuel,” Augi noted. Ontario Power Generation is developing the world’s first BWRX-300 project at its Darlington New Nuclear Project (DNNP) site east of Darlington Station in Bowmanville, Ontario and expects it could be ready for commercial operation in 2029.
“Most importantly, we have a proven nuclear fuel in the GNF2 product. We’ve delivered more than 25,000 bundles to the fleet. It’s been utilized in more than 70% of the BWR fleet. We’ve fabricated it both in U.S. and in Europe, has an existing supply chain, and does not require HALEU. It can be operated with LEU up to 5% enriched fuel,” he noted. “Qualified fuel is significant because it can take 10 years to qualify a new fuel type. This does give us an advantage we feel.”
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Author: Sonal Patel