Construction of subsequent plants will slip into the future, and the goal of a zero-carbon energy system by mid-century, already hard, will become harder.
Breakthrough said fuel was needed for reactors designed to work well with wind and solar on the grid, to replace coal plants, and to do other kinds of work besides making electricity – all in the quest for a zero-carbon economy.
“Construction of subsequent plants will slip into the future, and the goal of a zero-carbon energy system by mid-century, already hard, will become harder,” Breakthrough said.
Some advanced reactors need high assay low-enriched uranium, or Haleu, fuel. Without it “we are likely to have the first few advanced reactors waiting to start up, with no fuel for them in sight,” Breakthrough said.40 Tonnes Of Haleu Needed
The US Department of Energy estimates that more than 40 tonnes of Haleu will be needed before the end of the decade, with additional amounts required each year, to deploy a new fleet of advanced reactors to support the Biden-Harris administration’s 100% clean electricity by 2035.
The DOE recently announced a $150m (€146m) cost-shared award with American Centrifuge Operating of Bethesda, Maryland, to demonstrate the nation’s ability to produce Haleu.
Haleu is required by most US advanced reactors to achieve smaller designs, longer operating cycles, and increased efficiencies over current technologies. It is not currently available at commercial scale from domestic suppliers, a situation that could significantly impact the development and deployment of US advanced reactors, the DOE said.
According to the DOE, advancing domestic capability to produce Haleu will set the stage for larger, commercial-scale Haleu production in the US.
“Reducing our reliance on adversarial nations for Haleu fuel and building up our domestic supply chain will allow the US to grow our advanced reactor fleet and provide Americans with more clean, affordable power,” US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm said.
Russia is the major Haleu supplier globally, and Chinese vendors are also capable of producing the material.Uranium, Russia And The Race For Haleu
Natural uranium is one atom of Uranium-235, a fissile material that can sustain a nuclear chain reaction, in every 139 uranium atoms. Fuel for today’s reactors is one atom of U-235 per 20 atoms of uranium, known as low-enriched uranium.
Some advanced reactors need a blend that is just under one U-235 atom of U-235 per five uranium atoms, known as high assay low-enriched uranium, or Haleu.
But get to one U-235 atom per five uranium or above, and you have highly enriched uranium, which the US has been working hard to keep out of international commerce because of its military uses.
Breakthrough said Russia, with about 36% of the world’s uranium enrichment market, has been the obvious source for Haleu. But then Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, and “that source became untenable”, although the US still buys some enrichment from Russia.
In December, the developer of an advanced nuclear reactor proposed for the US state of Wyoming said it could be delayed at least two years because of a lack of advanced fuel sources outside Russia.
TerraPower, a company fronted by Bill Gates, said Russia is the only commercial source of Haleu fuel the Natrium nuclear power plant requires, but sourcing from there is no longer an option.