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UK, like US, begins subsidizing fuel for advanced reactors

UK, like US, begins subsidizing fuel for advanced reactors

26 January 2024

The UK government announces a plan to wean the country from dependence on Russian nuclear fuel and to quadruple its nuclear power capacity by 2050.

A crane places a dome atop a circular structure.
A crane places a 47-meter-wide dome atop a reactor building at Hinkley Point C, a nuclear power station that is under construction in southwest England, in December. Credit: EDF

The UK government will invest £300 million ($380 million) to produce high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), it announced this month, with the express intent to end Russia’s monopoly on the fuel, which is needed for most advanced nuclear reactors. Likely to be built at the Capenhurst nuclear complex in northwest England, a new HALEU plant is expected to begin operation by 2030, according to a 7 January statement from the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero.

The announcement follows the government’s awarding of a £9.5 million cost-shared grant to Urenco, the UK-headquartered multinational company that operates the Capenhurst uranium enrichment plant. HALEU will probably be produced there by building additional centrifuge cascades that are dedicated to further enriching the low-enriched uranium that the plant makes for today’s commercial light-water reactors, says Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

HALEU is enriched up to 19.75% in the fissile 235U isotope. At 20% enrichment, uranium is labeled as highly enriched and is considered a proliferation threat. Low-enriched uranium is at most 5% 235U. Many advanced reactor designs require HALEU fuel.

“Britain gave the world its first operational nuclear power plant, and now we will be the first nation in Europe outside of Russia to produce advanced nuclear fuel,” Claire Coutinho, the nation’s secretary of state for energy security and net zero, said in a statement. “This will be critical for energy security at home and abroad.”

Along with the US, Canada, France, and Japan, the UK pledged in December to “pursue at least $4.2 billion in government-led and private investment in our five nations’ collective enrichment and conversion capacity over the next three years.” The UK also was among the 22 nations that pledged at the 28th Conference of the Parties last month to triple their nuclear power capacity by 2050.

The US Department of Energy also is trying to stimulate a commercial HALEU enrichment industry. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 includes up to $700 million for both HALEU enrichment and the subsequent conversion to oxide or metal forms. DOE projects a domestic demand of 40 metric tons of HALEU by 2030. But commercial success for advanced reactors is far from assured.

On 9 January, DOE issued a request for proposals under which it proposes to buy a minimum of $2 million worth of HALEU from awardees. The solicitation specifies that HALEU enrichment must occur in the continental US, although it leaves the door open to foreign suppliers for the low-enriched uranium that would be further enriched to HALEU. The National Defense Authorization Act for the current fiscal year authorizes DOE to acquire HALEU from allied countries if “domestic options are not practicable.”

In the meantime, DOE plans to provide small amounts of HALEU to advanced reactor hopefuls for development and demonstration purposes. It will recover the material from spent research reactor fuel and by diluting stockpiled highly enriched uranium. The Bill Gates–backed TerraPower, which plans to build a sodium-cooled reactor in Wyoming, had intended to procure Russian HALEU before the outbreak of the Ukraine war. In December 2022, it announced that a lack of fuel would delay the planned 2028 startup of its plant by two years. DOE has committed $2 billion to the project, half its estimated cost.

Urenco’s US arm, which operates the nation’s sole domestic enrichment plant, has expressed interest in providing HALEU. The company has estimated its upfront cost to meet domestic HALEU demand at $250 million to $500 million. Centrus has contracted with DOE to supply 900 kg of HALEU a year from its 16-centrifuge plant in Ohio.

A Centrus official told a committee of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine last year that it would cost $700 million to $800 million to expand its plant to a capacity of 14 metric tons of 19.75% enriched HALEU per year, according to Lyman, a committee member. The £300 million UK government investment at Capenhurst is unlikely to cover the full cost to add HALEU-enrichment capacity, Lyman adds.

The UK’s planned HALEU plant is one component of a civil nuclear road map released on 11 January proposing to quadruple that nation’s nuclear power capacity by mid century. “We will remove any remaining Russian fuel and uranium supply to the UK by 2030 and work with our international partners to end international dependence on Russia and build shared, resilient allied supply chains free from the risk of political leverage,” the document states.

The blueprint includes exploring construction of a new plant of comparable size to the two-reactor, 3.2-gigawatt power station known as Hinkley Point C, which is under construction in southwest England. The project cost has doubled from its original estimate to £32 billion, according to the 2023 edition of World Nuclear Industry Status Report, and commissioning of the first reactor has slipped by several years. Construction of a nearly identical plant, called Sizewell C, is slated to begin this year at an existing nuclear site on the North Sea.

The road map expressly rules out the use of plutonium for fueling advanced reactors. The Sellafield nuclear complex, located in Cumbria, England, on the Irish Sea, houses 116 tons of plutonium, which was separated through spent fuel reprocessing, according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials. The government promised to prioritize “high-hazard-reduction activities” related to that stockpile.

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