The start of 2019 has seen significant progress towards production and licensing of high-assay low-enriched uranium (“HALEU”) fuel. If this momentum keeps up, it has the ability to check off what we have long-discussed to be a key prerequisite to commercial debut of advanced reactors.

As to production of HALEU, two significant events occurred around the end of January and start of February.

  • On January 17, DOE issued an Environmental Assessment (“EA”) finding no significant environmental impact with using DOE-owned HALEU feedstock currently stored at Idaho National Laboratory for production of fuel for advanced reactors. This step moves the use of government surplus HALEU for advanced reactors one step closely to reality. The EA covers 10 metric tons of HALEU feedstock, created from processing of fuel used in the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II program. In the DOE press release on the EA, DOE stated that “[w]ith this decision, the federal government will fabricate HALEU nuclear fuel at INL from the lab’s HALEU feedstock”—however the EA itself notes that “production requires expansion of [INL’s] fuel fabrication capability, including the purchase of new equipment and use of facilities.”
  • On February 5, URENCO USA announced that it “is now exploring the construction of a dedicated HALEU unit at the URENCO USA facility.” While the DOE INL program would kick-start HALEU fuel testing and demonstration, URENCO USA’s announcement would secure a long-term source of HALEU for commercial fuel fabrication. URENCO USA’s New Mexico Facility is the country’s only operating commercial enrichment facility, and produces one-third of US demand for enrichment services. With an already-operating enrichment facility on U.S. soil, and its parent company’s experience with producing enriched uranium above 5% U235 at enrichment facilities in Europe, URENCO USA is well-positioned to bring HALEU fuel to the commercial market on a time-scale necessary to meet the demands of the domestic advanced reactor industry.

But producing HALEU for advanced reactors is just half the battle. HALEU fuel designs need to be tested and validated before they can be licensed and used commercially. To this end, DOE’s recent announcement launching the Versatile Test Reactor (“VTR”) project is welcome news. The VTR will allow for testing of advanced fuel designs, particularly those fuel designs intended for fast neutron reactors. DOE’s announcement acknowledges that the U.S. trails both China and Russia in the ability to test advanced reactor fuels and materials. In an article by DOE Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette accompanying the VTR launch press release, Mr. Brouillette stated that the VTR, which is planned to come online mid-2020s, “eliminates this research gap” and could also “drastically extend lifetime reactor cores, boost fuel performance and even accelerate fusion research.”

With many companies moving forward with fabrication plans for advanced reactor fuel, these advancements in both producing and validating HALEU fuel cannot come soon enough.