Hearing Idea: Nuclear Fuel Supply Challenges
For decades, America was the dominant global supplier of enriched uranium fuel to utilities in the United States and other Western nations. However, the last U.S.-owned enrichment plant shut down in 2013, and most U.S. uranium mines have ceased production – leaving the United States heavily reliant on imports of enriched uranium fuel.1 Russia has become the world’s largest supplier of enrichment, while Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia are the world’s largest uranium producers. The single remaining enrichment plant in the United States, owned by a European company, can only meet roughly 1/3 of U.S. civilian requirements and is legally barred from supporting the U.S. nuclear deterrent or our naval nuclear fuel needs. For the first time since 1945, the United States now lacks an enrichment capability suitable for national security purposes.
Low-enriched uranium (LEU): Up to 19.75% enrichment
Currently, there is no planned fuel supply for high-assay LEU. Although there is a technical and regulatory pathway for the commercial industry to produce the needed high-assay LEU, without sufficient demand there lacks a strong business case to incentivize companies to make the capital investments necessary. And the lack of a predictable supply of high-assay LEU poses challenges to designers and operators to commercialize reactors that will create the demand. Today’s light water reactors (LWRs), which provide nearly 20% of U.S. electricity, use low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel that is enriched to around 5% (LEU is uranium enriched below 20%). Many of the advanced reactor designs under development, however, rely on fuel enriched at higher levels—up to 19.75% (high-enriched uranium, or HEU, is enriched to 20% or above; for context, HEU must typically be enriched to over 90% to be suitable for nuclear weapons). This high-assay LEU (uranium enriched between 5 and 19.75%) could also be used in some advanced technology fuels under development for the light water reactor fleet already in operation in the United States.
Short-term, the most likely source of high-assay LEU will be from HEU released by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The NNSA has released two “batches” of HEU, some of which is being downblended or utilized for a number of uses including producing lifesaving medical isotopes, and supporting national security objectives. In addition, NNSA plans to use some of this material in the production of research reactor fuel—replacing HEU in foreign and domestic research reactors with 19.75% LEU fuel—which is a critical U.S. non-proliferation priority. It is unclear if any of this HEU is still waiting to be downblended. If some is still available, instead of downblending it to 5% for the current commercial fleet, it could be downblended to 19.75% and set aside for future high-assay LEU fuel needs.2
Relying on potential NNSA-released HEU is only a stopgap measure, however, as the U.S. stockpile of HEU is finite, cannot currently be replaced, and is subject to a range of other competing national security demands. Large scale deployment of advanced reactors will likely require a long-term fuel supply chain of high-assay LEU. That includes an enrichment facility capable of producing not only the 4-5% assay LEU used in existing reactors, but also higher assay LEU up to 19.75% enrichment. The U.S. government does not have existing infrastructure to produce this fuel, nor is it currently available on the commercial market. To make sure that advanced reactor commercialization isn’t slowed by a lack of access to fuel, planning for a high-assay LEU fuel supply needs to begin sooner rather than later and will require coordination across the private sector, federal agencies and Congress.
- Joel Duling, President of Nuclear Fuel Services
- Everett Redmond, Senior Director of Fuel Cycle and Technology Policy at the Nuclear Energy Institute
- Jacob DeWitte, CEO of Oklo and Chair of the Fast Reactor Working Group
- Daniel B. Poneman, President and CEO of Centrus Energy and former Deputy Secretary of Energy
- Per Peterson, Professor of Nuclear Engineering at UC-Berkeley