- Department of Energy Secretary Brouillette Announces The Nuclear Fuel Working Group Strategy
- HALEU / ARC And Centrus Set Plans to Produce Fuel for Advanced Reactors
- Holtec SMR to Use Commercially-Available Framatome Fuel
DOE Goes All In to Save U.S. Uranium Mines from Foreign Imports
U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette announced the NWFG report of the Nuclear Fuel Working Group’s Strategy
The primary purpose of the planned policy, as described in the report, is to revive the struggling U.S. uranium mining industry and to secure long-term uranium supplies for future use by commercial nuclear utilities, fuel for U.S Navy ships and submaines, and by the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. (Full report; 32 pages – PDF file)
According to 2018 data from the Enegy Information Administration, just 10% of uranium fuel for U.S. commercial reactors came from domestic mines. In recent years some U.S. utilities have purchased up to 75% their nuclear fuel from foreign sources including Canada 24%, Australia 20%, Kazakhstan 18%, and Russia 13%.
Since January 2016 the spot price of uranium has been below $30/lb. The breakeven price for miners is $45/lb. Uranium mines in Utah, Colorado, Texas, and Arizona have shut down rather than operate at a loss.
When uranium ore is extracted from the earth, the amount of the fissile isotope uranium-235 is less than one percent. Typical yields of uranium mining are 4% or less per ton of material or about 80 pounds. Of that amount, just over half a pound, or .72%, is fissile material. Bottom line, it takes a lot of mining to get a good return from the investment in land, equipment, and workers. This is especially true for mines where yields are 1-2% U238 per ton of ore.
Note that some Canadian mines have yields as high as 20% U238 per ton of ore, but even at that level, they cannot operate at a profit when the spot price is in the ditch.
Other sources of uranium include downblending of highly enriched uranium (80%+ U235) from nuclear weapons, recycling of weapons grade plutonium combined with U238 to make Mixed Oxide Fuel equivalent to about 5% U235, and re-enrichment of depleted uranium. in the form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6). See also the World Nuclear Association paper on world supplies of uranium.
Taking Steps to Avoid Market Disruption
The NFWG says it recognizes “the importance of taking focused, deliberate action to prevent the near-term collapse of the domestic uranium mining, milling and conversion industries, and the need to support US strategic fuel cycle capabilities.”
It says that “immediate and bold” action needs to be taken to strengthen the country’s uranium mining and conversion industries, and that investments are must be made in research, development and demonstration “to consolidate technical advances and strengthen American leadership in the next generation of nuclear energy technologies”.
The President’s Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Request for the Department of Energy includes $150 million to establish a domestic Uranium Reserve. It will begin with the purchase of uranium from U.S. mines and of U.S. conversion services he turn yellowcake into uanium hexaflouride for use in enrichment services operations.
In its report, the NFWG said: “The new uranium reserve will provide assurance of availability of uranium in the event of a market disruption and support strategic US fuel cycle capabilities, and is not designed to replace or disrupt market mechanisms.”
Whether Congress will appropriate these funds remains to be seen. Given the hundreds of billions that Congress has just released to deal with the economic effects of the corona virus, one of two things may happen.
- First, the amount is relatively small given the huge sums moving through the appropriations process. No one may notice this line item even though $150M is a lot of money.
- Second, Congress may see this as just one more handout to a pleading by a specific industry and throw the whole lot in the circular file of “not gonna happen” legislation.
What remains unclear is how much of this money will be spent on each step of the nuclear fuel cycle. The U.S. only has one active uranium mill to process uranium ore into yellowcake. It appears the government’s plan is to just stockpile it but it is unclear in what form, e.g., converted into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) for use in enrichment services?
Will the government then sell the uranium to utilities at market rates? What will it pay the miners for the uranium? How will they benefit? A government stockpile developed now could in future years be a hedge against price spikes on global markets though the outlook for them at this juncture appears to be slight.
Fixing the Consequences of Past Government Policies
DOE says there needs to be a “whole-of-government approach” to supporting the US nuclear energy industry in exporting civil nuclear technology in competition with foreign state-owned enterprises, while assuring consistency with US non-proliferation objectives and supporting national security, it adds.
There is a lot of “inside baseball” policy wonk stuff in these recommendations. Given the Trump adminstration’s well documented dislike for actually governing, it may become the task of some future presidency to implement these multi-agency recommendations.
The report recommends the government streamlines regulatory reform and land access for uranium mining and supports efforts by the Department of Commerce to extend the Russian Suspension Agreement to protect against future uranium dumping in the US market. In addition, it should enable Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deny imports of nuclear fuel fabricated in Russia or China for national security purposes.
According to World Nuclear News, the Department of Commerce in 1992 agreed to suspend its investigation into Russian uranium imports under the terms of the US-Russia Antidumping Suspension Agreement. The agreement, which was amended in 1994, 1996, 1997 and 2008, provides strict limits and conditions on such imports.
The original 1992 agreement essentially eliminated any direct sales of Russian-origin uranium or enrichment into the USA, but the 2008 amendment allowed for direct sales of Russian-origin enriched uranium product from 2008 to 2020 at about 20% of the US market. The agreement is due to expire in 2020, after which Russian-origin uranium products and services can be sold into the USA without any restrictions.
The DOE report also called for the government to “create a level playing field for all energy sources in power markets” and encourage Federal Energy Regulatory Commission action to improve competition in the wholesale energy markets.
An Ambitious Agenda Will Need Congressional Support and Money
Secretary Brouillette has outlined an ambitious agenda. DOE says potential actions outlined in it could enhance the positive attributes of nuclear power, revive capabilities of the uranium mining, milling, and conversion industries, strengthen U.S. technology supremacy, and drive U.S. exports, while assuring consistency with U.S. non-proliferation objectives and supporting national security.
“The decline of the U.S. industrial base in the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle over the past few decades has threatened our national interest and national security,” said Secretary Brouillette.
“This Strategy to Restore American Nuclear Energy Leadership recognizes this challenge and lays out an array of policy options to restore America’s leadership in nuclear energy and technology including;
- Fund R&D for Accident Tolerant Fuels and High-Assay Low-Enriched
Uranium (HALEU), complete HALEU enrichment demonstration program, and
fund advanced water treatment technology for uranium mining and in-situ
- Support the National Reactor Innovation Center and Versatile Test Reactor projects
- Fund R&D and demonstration of U.S. advanced nuclear reactor technology
- Demonstrate the use of small modular reactors (SMRs) and micro-reactors to
power federal facilities
Defense Needs for Uranium
Brouillette said the Strategy also recognizes that U.S. national security is truly integrated with the health of the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle. The report notes;
“As a matter of national security, it is critical that we take bold steps to preserve and grow the entire U.S. nuclear energy enterprise. The administration is committed to regaining our competitive global position as the world leader in nuclear energy.”
The United States needs a strong civil nuclear industry to enable national defense. The U.S. does not want to be dependent on foreign sources for uranium for its nuclear weapons arsenal.
“Defense Needs: The U.S. has well-defined defense needs that also depend on a healthy nuclear fuel cycle in the long-term. There are currently two defense needs for uranium: low-enriched uranium is needed to produce tritium required for nuclear weapons, and highly- enriched uranium is used to fuel Navy nuclear reactors.
Agreements with foreign suppliers prohibit the use of uranium for military purposes. DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is responsible for both these missions, and has sufficient stockpiles of unobligated uranium fuel to support tritium production until 2041 and Navy propulsion until the 2050’s. Ensuring a viable industry mitigates risk to future supply chains.”
Separately , the DOE report says that the credibility of the U.S. non-proliferation regime depends upon the viability and the health of a robust civilian nuclear energy industry and technology leadership position, including the “world-leading standard” embodied by the U.S. nuclear safety regulatory structures.
Is the Report Credible – A Qualified Yes
Speaking of credibility, the report contains some worthwhile recommendations. More to the point, unlike the knuckleheads, and political loyalists, and hangers on that have populated many U.S. government posts in this administration, Secretary Brouillette has held numerous positions in government. This gives him a running start to actually get something done in the last year of this administration.
He was Chief of Staff to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has broad jurisdictional and oversight authority over five Cabinet-level Federal agencies. He also served as Assistant Secretary of Energy for Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs from 2001 to 2003.
The United States Nuclear Fuel Working Group (NFWG) was established to undertake a fuller analysis of national security considerations with respect to the entire nuclear fuel supply chain.
The NFWG took a collaborative interagency approach to develop policy options across the entire nuclear fuel supply chain to revitalize the U.S. nuclear energy industry.
It may be a tough road to travel to see some of these recommendations make their way to policy and funded programs.The report is a credible starting point for that journey.
ARC / Centrus Announces Plans To Cooperate On U.S. Enrichment Capacity for HALEU Fuel
(NucNet) The new agreement is intended to establish a ‘long-term commitment’ to ARC-100 reactor project
Advanced Reactor Concepts, developer of the ARC-100 sodium-cooled fast reactor, has signed a letter of intent with Centrus Energy Corp to cooperate on deployment of US uranium enrichment capacity to produce high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel.
Centrus said that while the letter is non-binding and non-exclusive, it reflects the parties’ long-term commitment to enter into a purchase agreement that would enable Centrus to supply the commercial HALEU fuel that ARC needs to deploy the ARC-100 reactor technology in the late 2020s.
The US-based company said the fuel could power both existing and next-generation nuclear reactors, including the ARC-100. According to Maryland-based ARC, the plant’s inherent safety features and passive decay heat removal capabilities, combined with the improved power density of Haleu fuel, allow for a smaller, simpler, less-capital intensive reactor design.
Unlike existing light-water reactors, which must be refuelled with low-enriched uranium (LEU) every 18 to 24 months, the fuel core of the ARC-100 will allow the reactor to operate at full power for 20 years without refuelling.
A report from the White House nuclear fuel working group released last week identified establishing a domestic HALEU fuel production capability as a key priority in restoring the US’s competitive advantage in nuclear energy.
To this end, Centrus has been working since 2019 under a three-year, $115M cost-shared contract with the US Department of Energy to deploy 16 of its AC-100M centrifuges to demonstrate production of HALEU fuel with US technology in Ohio.
The demonstration program is scheduled to run until 2022, at which point Centrus expects to have a fully licensed, operable HALEU fuel production capability at a small scale that could be expanded to meet commercial and government requirements for the fuel.
ARC expects to deploy its ARC-100 reactors starting in late 2028, with the first fuel needed by 2027.
Centrus said that despite its many advantages as a nuclear fuel, HALEU fuel is not commercially available today, nor are any HALEU-fuelled reactors in commercial operation.
The lack of available HALEU fuel constrains the deployment of advanced reactors and advanced fuels. The lack of advanced reactors also limits the development of advanced fuels.
This is the “chicken and egg” dilemma that must be resolved for the US to establish itself as the global leader in building and fuelling the next generation of reactors around the world, which is critical to US influence on nonproliferation.
“Many of the foreign reactor developers that compete against US companies may not face the same dilemma because they are backed by large, state-owned uranium enrichment enterprises,” Centrus said.
What Is HALEU Fuel?
Most existing commercial reactors in the US and worldwide operate on LEU fuel that has been enriched to increase the concentration of the U-235 isotope to slightly less than 5%. High assay, low-enriched uranium is further enriched so that the U-235 concentration is between 5% and 20%.
While this is still far below the levels needed to produce weapons or power US Navy vessels, HALEU fuel offers unique advantages for both existing and next generation reactors, including greater power density, improved reactor performance, fewer refuelling outages, improved proliferation resistance, and smaller volumes of waste.
INL/GAIN – HALEU Fact Sheets
See also prior coverage on this blog: Why are so many U.S. firms investing in new uranium fuel projects?
Holtec SMR to Use Commercially-available Framatome Fuel
(WNN) Holtec International has selected Framatome to supply nuclear fuel for its SMR-160 small modular reactor (SMR). The companies have entered into an agreement to enable completion of all necessary engineering to fuel the SMR-160 with Framatome’s commercially available and proven 17×17 GAIA fuel assembly.
Framatome initially developed the GAIA fuel assembly to ensure “optimal performance and high safety margins for increasingly demanding conditions”, including increases in burn-up, lower neutron leakage, cycle lengths of up to 24 months, and challenging water chemistry conditions.
Holtec said the GAIA fuel assembly design has been determined to be ideally suited for its SMR reactor.
The selection of Framatome’s widely consumed fuel has substantially reduced the majority of the first-of-a-kind-engineering for the fuel system, Holtec said.
“By adapting the SMR-160 to utilize standard pressurized water reactor fuel in its core design, Holtec has substantially eliminated risks associated with nuclear fuel, ensuring fuel-related operational experience from the current light water reactor fleet operating world-wide is relevant to our reactor,” it said.
“Critically, the inclusion of Framatome in our SMR-160 program ensures that a prospective SMR-160 plant owner will have ready access to a robust international fuel supply chain.”
“We’re excited to offer our proven products and fuel expertise to Holtec in support of their effort to develop and license the SMR-160 with maximum speed,” said Gary Mignogna, president and CEO of Framatome in North America.
Holtec CEO Kris Singh added, “We look forward to leveraging Framatome’s vast reservoir of nuclear fuel know-how accumulated over the past five decades to expeditiously deploy the SMR-160 reactor with truly minimized risk.”
Holtec’s 160 MWe factory-built SMR uses low-enriched uranium fuel. The reactor’s core and all nuclear steam supply system components would be located underground, and the design incorporates a wealth of features including a passive cooling system that would be able to operate indefinitely after shutdown.
No active components, such as pumps, are needed to run the reactor, which does not need any on-site or off-site power to shut down and to dissipate decay heat. The SMR-160 is planned for operation by 2026.
In March 2018, Holtec signed a memorandum of understanding with Energoatom on adoption of Holtec’s SMR technology with Ukraine to become a manufacturing hub for SMR-160 reactor components. The MoU includes the licensing and construction of SMR-160 reactors in Ukraine, as well as the partial localization of SMR-160 components.
The Ukrainian manufacturing hub is to mirror the capabilities of Holtec’s Advanced Manufacturing Plant in Camden, New Jersey, and will be one of four manufacturing plants Holtec plans to build at distributed sites around the world by the mid-2020s.
The SMR-160 is currently undergoing the first phase of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s three-phase pre-licensing vendor design review process. State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine is expected to coordinate its assessment of SMR-160 under a collaborative arrangement with its Canadian counterpart.
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