The US may soon get its first new source of nuclear fuel in 70 years

Next-gen nuclear plants could be critical to the energy transition, but first, they’ll need fuel. Centrus has overcome a key regulatory barrier to meeting that need.
By Eric Wesoff

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A row of very tall beige cylinders in a vertical row inside a large industrial facility
Centrus' HALEU cascade (Centrus)

The U.S. government is committed to bringing an abundance of advanced nuclear reactors to market as part of its decarbonization strategy — but until now, there has been no domestic corporate supply of the specialized fuel they require.

That’s about to change.

Ohio-based Centrus Energy achieved a milestone in its march toward restarting the long-dormant U.S. nuclear fuel supply chain. In June, the firm cleared an operational readiness review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which means that Centrus can now handle the materials needed to produce a concentrated form of nuclear fuel, high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU).

It puts Centrus and its operational subsidiary American Centrifuge Operating LLC one step closer to switching on domestic production of the fuel needed to power next-generation nuclear plants, which proponents say are critical to providing dispatchable, carbon-free firm power at an affordable price.

The company could also help offset Russian fuel-supply risk. The Department of Energy, the nuclear industry and investors including Bill Gates are all funding the development of dozens of advanced nuclear startups that require HALEU — but the only current commercial supplier is Tenex, which is part of Russian state-owned company Rosatom.

When we turn our cascade on, that will be the first new U.S.-owned, U.S.-technology enrichment plant to start production in 70 years,” said Dan Leistikow, VP of corporate communications at Centrus.

Although Centrus has cleared one significant hurdle with this approval, as with any nuclear project, the road ahead remains long, winding and uncertain. The company has a handle on the engineering side of the equation, but it still needs to wade through a number of regulatory and economic challenges before it can truly scale commercial production of the critical fuel.

Uranium enrichment past and present

The United States was once the dominant force in uranium enrichment, enjoying a virtual monopoly on supplying the product to countries outside of the Soviet bloc in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to capacity that had been built to win the Cold War.

But over the last three decades, the U.S. allowed that leadership to wither as other countries have deployed centrifuge enrichment technologies of their own. The U.S. lost its last source of domestic-origin enriched uranium in 2013, making it precariously dependent on imports from Russia and Europe to fuel its existing fleet of reactors.

The U.S. has gone from being the world’s largest exporter of nuclear fuel to the world’s largest importer, with no ability to enrich uranium for national security” or energy purposes, said Leistikow.

The world’s entire commercial uranium enrichment capacity is now owned by foreign state-owned corporations, with Russia holding 46 percent of the market. The rest is supplied by China, France and Urenco, a European consortium with facilities in the United States.

Two charts showing the rapid decline of US uranium production from 1985 to 2020
(Charts: Centrus/Data: World Nuclear Association and Congressional Budget Office)

That wasn’t an ideal situation even before Russia invaded Ukraine. Now that the war in Ukraine has been grinding on for over 16 months with no end in sight, relying on fuel that is solely sourced from Putin’s Russia is just not a workable business strategy.

If advanced reactors are to play any role in the U.S. energy transition, the U.S. needs to reclaim its nuclear mojo and figure out how to mass-produce HALEU, a newer, much more concentrated form of nuclear fuel.

Fun with uranium enrichment

Natural uranium pulled from the ground contains less than 1 percent of what Leistikow calls the good stuff” — the fissile, splittable uranium isotope U-235.

That’s what makes the reaction go,” said Leistikow.

The vast majority of the world’s fleet of existing nuclear reactors — known as light water reactors — run on fuel enriched to 3 percent to 5 percent U-235, which is classified as low-enriched uranium. Think of that as like Miller Lite,” said Leistikow.

A graphic comparing the enrichment levels of various types of uranium isotopes
(Centrus)

In contrast, most next-generation nuclear reactors are designed to run on enrichments of 5 percent to 20 percent uranium-235, known as HALEU. The fuel’s higher energy density allows for smaller reactor designs, longer-lasting cores and less waste than current technologies, according to the Department of Energy.

Think of HALEU as a premium product like a nice Belgian beer or fortified wine,” said Leistikow.

The actual process of increasing the concentration of U-235 is accomplished in a centrifuge, which takes advantage of the slight difference in weight between the two uranium isotopes.

Centrus’ Piketon, Ohio site is now the only facility in the United States that is licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to produce HALEU. The company aims to start production by the end of this year, using 16 newly constructed centrifuges — the product of a three-year demonstration project with the DOE to build the enrichment cascade.

Advanced reactors: Ascendant but Russia-dependent 

In 2020, the DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demo Program selected two startups, TerraPower and X-energy, to each receive $80 million in initial funding to help build next-gen reactors and begin operating them by 2028, along with future matching funds. These two demonstration projects are slated to use HALEU derived from Centrus’ 16-centrifuge cascade.

For its part, TerraPower is developing a 345-megawatt sodium-cooled fast reactor coupled with a molten salt energy storage system. Founded by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the company has raised $750 million to build an operating demonstration reactor in Wyoming. TerraPower announced in December that it would delay the planned deployment of its reactor due to a lack of HALEU availability, in part because it has pledged not to use Russian-sourced uranium.

Overall, nine of the 10 advanced reactor designs that were funded by the demo program require HALEU, and the DOE projects that more than 40,000 kilograms could be needed before 2030 to fuel an initial fleet of advanced reactors.

But Centrus’ demonstration project will only deliver an initial 20 kilograms of HALEU before the end of the year, with plans to scale up to 900 kilograms of annual production starting in 2024.

Leistikow noted that while the demonstration cascade has 16 machines, a commercial-scale cascade would contain 120 centrifuges and would produce 6,000 kilograms of HALEU per year.

We can bring a full commercial-scale cascade online within 42 months of receiving the funding and then an additional cascade every six months beyond that.”

There are other steps in the production of HALEU, but Centrus’ capacity projections suggest that if everything goes right on the economic, regulatory, workforce and astrological fronts, the two demonstration reactors could have their fuel in time for their expected date of coming online at the turn of the decade.

But commercial-scale production of HALEU is not going to emerge without a stable customer base, and the advanced reactors that need HALEU cannot be deployed without a fuel supply.

Enrichment companies know how to do the engineering and the licensing, but they need to make sure that there’s a business case for long-term operation. It’s less a regulatory and technical risk than an industrial-scale question, according to Patrick White of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.

What’s needed is a market

If we want a reactor online by 2027 or 2028, we need to start producing the fuel in 2025 or 2026, which means that we’re now down to three to four years to bring this capacity online,” White said. We need to work more quickly to bring up a domestic infrastructure that we can rely on and break this chicken-and-egg problem with demand.”

For now, there is plenty of government funding for advanced reactors and HALEU: The bipartisan infrastructure law contains $3.2 billion for development of advanced nuclear power. The DOE’s Loan Programs Office has $11 billion in loan-guarantee authority for advanced nuclear plants and supply chains, potentially including HALEU. The Inflation Reduction Act devotes $700 million to support the HALEU Availability Program, an amount Leistikow said is not nearly enough to stand up a domestic enrichment industry.

Still, the DOE has indicated through recent proposal requests that it will attempt to serve as an anchor customer for HALEU. As White tells it, The DOE is helping to solve the chicken-and-egg problem by saying, We’ll be the first buyer of this material and help guarantee a customer so the capital investments can flow in from private industry.’”

There’s an earlier historical parallel for this approach: Last century, the U.S. government built enrichment plants for national-security purposes. In 1956, then-President Eisenhower made $1 billion ($11 billion in today’s dollars) worth of enriched uranium available to utilities in the United States and around the world in exchange for meeting nonproliferation standards. In terms of getting carbon-free nuclear power built, the program was a major success.

That basically enabled the hundreds of commercial plants that were built in the 60s, 70s and 80s,” said Leistikow.

Now, nearly seven decades later, Centrus and the rest of the U.S. advanced nuclear world are hoping the country can pull off a similar move again.

Eric Wesoff is the editorial director at Canary Media.