America’s New Nuclear Power Industry Has A Russian Problem

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The only company that offers the fuel those American companies need to build the next generation of modest nuclear power plants to reduce carbon emissions is Russian.

Stockpile weapons

That’s why the U.S. government is urgently looking to use some of its stockpile of weapons-grade uranium to help fuel the new advanced reactors and kick-start an industry it sees as crucial for countries to meet global net-zero emissions goals.

“Production of HALEU is a critical mission and all efforts to increase its production are being evaluated,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said.

The energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine has renewed interest in nuclear power.

But without a reliable source of the high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) the reactors need, developers worry they won’t receive orders for their plants.

While no Western countries have sanctioned Rosatom over Ukraine, mainly because of its importance to the global nuclear industry, U.S. power plant developers such as X-energy and TerraPower don’t want to be dependent on a Russian supply chain. 

“After the invasion of Ukraine, we were not comfortable doing business with Russia.”

Chicken and egg

Nuclear power currently generates about 10% of the world’s electricity and many countries are now exploring new nuclear projects to improve their energy supply and energy security, as well as to help meet goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

While the SMRs on offer from companies such as EDF and Rolls-Royce use existing technology and the same fuel as traditional reactors, nine out of 10 of the advanced reactors funded by Washington are designed to use HALEU.

Proponents say these advanced plants need less frequent refuelling and are three times as efficient as traditional models.

Some analysts say the price difference might be narrower at the moment because the smaller advanced reactors using HALEU don’t yet have economies of scale from mass production.

And this chicken and egg conundrum is complicating the smooth development of HALEU supply.

“A reliable HALEU supply is one of many factors under consideration,” the company said in an emailed statement.

Alternative supplies

The U.S. government recognised years ago that Russia’s monopoly on HALEU could hamper the development of the advanced reactors it hopes will provide low-carbon energy at home and also be exported to markets in Europe and Asia.

Once the facility gets up and running, it will take five years before Centrus can start producing 13 tonnes of HALEU a year.

But that’s only a third of the amount the DOE projects will be needed for U.S. reactors by 2030.

Other potential HALEU producers are further behind.

French state-owned uranium mining and enrichment company Orano says it could start producing HALEU in five to eight years, but will only apply for a production licence once it has customers with long-term contracts.

“Orano’s assessment shows that the single most important factor enabling success is the DOE guaranteeing a certain volume of demand,” the company said in a statement on its website.

Clock is ticking

For TerraPower and X-energy, which have projects planned in the U.S. states of Wyoming and Washington respectively, the clock is ticking.

But without Russian fuel, that deadline will fall well before any alternative commercial suppliers would be up and running.

While the 20% enrichment levels for HALEU are well below the roughly 90% level needed for weapons, companies need special licences to produce them.

Additional security and certification requirements are also required for production sites, packaging and transportation of the fuel.

The Inflation Reduction Act U.S. President Joe Biden signed in August contained $700 million to secure HALEU supplies from the government and a consortium partnered with the DOE for use in advanced reactors and research.

Last year, nuclear power stations in the United States imported about 14% of their uranium from Russia, along with 28% of their enrichment services, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

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Source: ET

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