The “high-assay low-enriched uranium”, or Haleu fuel, is particularly important for new and smaller commercial reactors that the DOE considers critical to grid stability as renewables replace aging fossil fuel power plants, Mr Brouillette said.
He told lawmakers the DOE has moved centrifuges from its Oak Ridge laboratories to a mothballed uranium processing plant built in the 1950s at Portsmouth, Ohio, and expects to begin processing to produce Haleu next year.
In addition, the DOE is working on legislation authorising the creation of a uranium reserve.
“I think it is absolutely critical that we further develop the front end of the fuel cycle,” Mr Brouillette said. “We have lost our leadership edge in America with regard to the provision of nuclear power. And today... the vast majority of the fuel purchased by the civilian nuclear fleet in the United Sates is ... primarily from Russia.”
The Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute asked the DOE over a year ago to begin a Haleu project as a way to ensure the development of advanced reactors after surveying reactor developers and determining the absence of a high-energy fuel supply could stymie further commercial development.
“The development, demonstration, and deployment of many advanced nuclear technologies is in jeopardy since there is no certainty that a Haleu fuel infrastructure will be in place when they are ready to enter the market,” NEI president and chief executive officer Maria Korsnick, wrote in a letter to the DOE.
Haleu is a component for advanced nuclear reactor fuel that is not commercially available today and may be required for a number of advanced reactor designs under development in both the commercial and government sectors.
Existing reactors typically operate on low-enriched uranium (LEU), with the uranium-235 isotope concentration just below 5%. Haleu has a uranium-235 isotope concentration of up to 20%, giving it several potential technical and economic advantages.
The higher concentration of uranium means that fuel assemblies and reactors can be smaller and reactors will require less frequent refueling. Reactors can also achieve higher “burnup” rates, meaning a smaller volume of fuel will be required overall and less waste will be produced.
The lack of a US source of Haleu is widely seen as an obstacle to US leadership in the global market for advanced reactors. In a 2017 survey of leading US advanced reactor companies, 67% of companies responded that an assured supply of Haleu was either “urgent” or “important” to their company. The survey also showed that “the development of a US supplier” was the most frequently cited concern with respect to Haleu.