Lack of adequate funding for the US Department of Energy's HALEU Availability Program could make realization of the purchasing plan described by DOE in a draft solicitation "problematic," a Nuclear Energy Institute official said June 9.
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HALEU is high-assay low enriched uranium, enriched to between 5% and 20% U-235, and is proposed to be used by most advanced reactor developers. Congress established the HALEU Availability Program in 2020.
DOE released two draft RFPs June 5, one for HALEU purchases and a second for deconversion of HALEU into uranium oxide and other forms for fuel fabrication. The comment period for both closes July 6.
"Due to a lack of sufficient funding, the only financial commitment DOE will make [in the draft RFP] is for licensing costs for HALEU facilities," said Nima Ashkeboussi, NEI senior director for fuel supply.
Congress appropriated $700 million in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 in support of various HALEU program activities, including $500 million that is being considered for use in creating a commercial supply chain for HALEU.
The IRA "represents a strong initial down payment, but there is broad agreement in the industry that additional funding will be required to establish the domestic HALEU supply chain necessary to commercialize the next generation of advanced reactors," uranium company Centrus Energy Corp. spokesperson Dan Leistikow said June 9.
Centrus said in May it is considering producing low-enriched uranium at its Ohio facility after finishing construction and initial testing of a DOE-funded demonstration centrifuge plant for HALEU.
In the DOE demonstration, Centrus will produce up to 20 kgU of HALEU by the end of 2023, followed by 900 kgU of HALEU production annually through 2032.
Centrus says can expand HALEU production as needed
"Centrus is on track to begin first-of-a-kind HALEU production by the end of this year, and with sufficient funding, we can expand to whatever scale of production is required," Leistikow said.
However, Ashkeboussi noted that when that funding becomes available, "DOE is requesting firm, fixed pricing for HALEU offtake. This creates a significant challenge due to the price volatility currently seen in the fuel market."
That volatility stems primarily from a lack of adequate enrichment capacity in the West, as most utilities — including those that historically have used only Russian fuel — are seeking to diversify away from Russian supply of enriched uranium in the aftermath of that country's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
According to the draft solicitation, DOE expects to issue one or more firm-fixed price and firm-fixed price with economic price adjustment contracts for HALEU production.
"We must jump-start a commercial-scale, domestic supply chain for HALEU," said Kathryn Huff, DOE's assistant secretary for nuclear energy, in the June 5 statement. "Acquiring these services in the United States will reduce reliance on Russia, create American jobs, and support U.S. climate and energy security goals."
Currently Russia's state-owned nuclear company Rosatom is the only commercial supplier of HALEU. Some advanced reactor developers had planned to purchase the material from Rosatom before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Program assumes 10 years of HALEU production
DOE did not specify in the draft solicitation the amount or timeframe for its HALEU purchases. However, the department said in a statement June 2 that the HALEU Availability Program assumes production of between 5 metric tons and 145 metric tons of HALEU over a ten-year period.
"Although DOE prefers mining/milling and conversion also to occur in the United States, DOE will consider other countries within or outside North America. DOE expects mines that have existing operational licenses to supply uranium oxide product for this RFP," DOE said in the draft solicitation.
For the second draft RFP, the department requested feedback on the deconversion of enriched uranium hexafluoride gas into metal or oxide forms to fabricate reactor fuel.
Such activities include transporting UF6 to deconversion facilities, performing the process, and storing the deconverted material until it can be shipped to a fuel fabricator.
DOE said it will use public comments "to inform" the final RFPs to be issued later this year. It said it intends to begin acquiring HALEU "as soon as possible."
The periods of performance for the HALEU and deconversion contracts are expected to be about 10 years from the time of award.
DOE said more than 40 metric tons of HALEU "could be needed before the end of the decade, with additional amounts required each year, to deploy a new fleet of advanced reactors in a timeframe that supports the Biden-Harris Administration's goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035."
DOE to prepare EIS to support program
DOE is preparing an environmental impact statement to support its purchases of HALEU under the availability program, according to DOE's notice of intent published June 5 in the Federal Register.
The goal is "to facilitate the establishment of commercial HALEU fuel production," because currently there is "insufficient private incentive to invest in commercial HALEU production due to the current market base," DOE said.
The notice said, "There is also insufficient incentive to invest in the necessary commercial deployment of advanced reactors because the domestic fuel supply chain does not exist."
A 45-day public period to comment on scope of the EIS will begin June 5. DOE said it will hold three webcast scoping meetings June 21.
DOE said it expects to announce the availability of the draft EIS by the end of 2023 and the availability of the final EIS in the Federal Register in mid-2024.
A record of decision "will follow no sooner than 30 days after publication" of the final EIS, according to the notice.
It said the EIS will analyze reasonable alternatives, including a no-action alternative, and address several activities it said are necessary to facilitate HALEU fuel commercialization. Such activities include uranium production, conversion and enrichment; deconversion of uranium hexafluoride to uranium oxide and other forms; and transportation of HALEU.
In addition to those activities, "there are several reasonably foreseeable activities that could result from implementation" of the program, DOE said. They include fuel fabrication; reactor demonstration and testing; and spent fuel storage and disposition, the notice said.
DOE will assess in the EIS among other issues the potential effects on public health from radiation exposure and the potential for disproportionately high and adverse effects on minority and low-income populations.
It will also evaluate potential impacts on surface and groundwater; air quality and including climate change); plants, animals, and their habitats; and geology and soils.
The draft EIS will address potential impacts from the transportation of HALEU-related radioactive materials.