A nuclear fuels company has gained U.S. regulatory approval to produced a new form of uranium and demonstrate its scalability in the next year.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave its approval to Centrus Energy Corp.’s request to produce high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) at its enrichment facility in Piketon, Ohio, the company said. The Piketon facility also is now licensed to enrich uranium up to 20 percent U-235 and can demonstrate HALEU production early next year, according to the release.
“This approval is a major milestone in our contract with the Department of Energy,” said Daniel B. Poneman, Centrus President and CEO. “We appreciate the dedicated and rigorous work of the NRC staff and Commissioners in their review and approval of our license amendment request.”
Centrus says that HALEU-based fuels will be needed for most advanced reactor designs currently under development. Developers of nine of the 10 advanced reactor designs selected for funding under the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, including the two demonstration reactors, have said they will rely on HALEU-based fuels, according to the company.
Many small modular reactors offer the possibility of developing carbon-free nuclear production with small footprints and price tags than conventional plants, such as Georgia Power’s $27 billion Vogtle 3 and 4 expansion. They would rely, however, on a fuel not currently commercially available, which is HALEU.
The fledgling SMR industry anticipates it may need 600 metric tonnes of HALEU by 2030 to deploy these new reactors.
The U.S. Department of Energy defines HALEU as enriched uranium between 5 and 20 percent, while the existing fleet runs on a maximum 5 percent enriched U-235. The higher level is required for most U.S. advanced reactors to achieve smaller designs which gain more power per unit of volume, according to DOE.
Under a 2019 contract with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Centrus is constructing a cascade of sixteen AC100M centrifuges – a U.S.-origin technology – to demonstrate production of HALEU. The three year, $115 million, cost-shared contract runs through mid-2022.