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DOE to fund $115M pilot project to aid small US nuclear reactor development

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DOE to fund $115M pilot project to aid small US nuclear reactor development

The U.S. Department of Energy announced a three-year, $115 million effort to demonstrate domestic production of high-assay, low-enriched uranium, or HALEU, that can power some small advanced reactor technologies, a potential lifeline for the struggling nuclear power industry.

On Jan. 7, the DOE published a notice of intent to contract with American Centrifuge Operating LLC, a subsidiary of Centrus Energy Corp., to demonstrate HALEU production with existing U.S.-origin enrichment technology by October 2020. The agency said American Centrifuge Operating is the only source capable of meeting the DOE's requirements for the program, including that the contractor be owned and controlled within the U.S. But the DOE said any other U.S. company that believes it can perform this work can submit a capability statement by Jan. 22.

On a Jan. 7 background call with reporters, DOE Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette said many advanced reactor concepts, including some micro-reactors, need HALEU fuel because it provides more power per volume than conventional nuclear reactors. HALEU can also facilitate smaller power plant sizes and provide longer core life and a "higher burn-up" rate of nuclear waste.

"We feel pretty strongly that this perhaps represents the future of nuclear energy, not only here in the U.S. but perhaps around the world," Brouillette said. "So it's important that we see this reactor technology move forward and be commercialized."

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already granted American Centrifuge Operating a license to operate a HALEU production facility that will allow the company to meet the DOE's schedule for the demonstration project. The company is subleasing the DOE's facility in Piketon, Ohio, where the program would be carried out.

Brouillette told reporters that Russia is capable of producing this fuel, but the DOE is looking for U.S.-sourced HALEU supply. Despite its potential advantages, he cautioned that HALEU is most applicable to the smallest types of nuclear reactors and is "not a fuel that can be used by every small reactor out there."

He said NuScale Power LLC's design concept for a small modular reactor, which the company will use to build a roughly 600 MW facility made up of a dozen 50-MW small modular reactors stacked together at the DOE's Idaho National Laboratory, "is probably a little too large of a reactor" to employ HALEU.

The DOE's Jan. 7 notice of intent is one of several recent efforts by federal regulators and U.S. lawmakers to support the production of HALEU fuel. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a bill in September 2018 that, among other things, would form a program to supply a minimum amount of HALEU to U.S. advanced reactor developers from DOE stockpiles until a long-term domestic supply is developed.

And in April 2018, the DOE agreed to provide about $4.49 million to Xenergy for the design and licensing of a fuel fabrication facility capable of handling HALEU and the production of U.S.-developed uranium oxycarbide tristructural isotropic particle-based fuel elements that are needed for future advanced reactors.

The push to support advanced nuclear technologies comes as the existing U.S. nuclear fleet struggles against competitive and growing natural gas-fired and renewable power. Those market pressures have forced several nuclear plants to close their doors, and more than 10 GW of additional retirements are scheduled through 2025, according to data compiled by S&P Global Market Intelligence.