Advanced nuclear technologies are vital to meeting carbon-free energy targets. New reactors need to be demonstrated this decade to ensure full commercial deployment in the 2030’s and beyond.
Most advanced nuclear reactors under development in the U.S., including the NatriumTM reactor and energy storage system, rely on HALEU fuel. HALEU, or high assay low enriched uranium, is a class of nuclear fuel that allows advanced nuclear reactors to deliver carbon-free electricity with enhanced environmental benefits and greater efficiency that is unmatched by the current nuclear fleet.
A major hurdle for the development and commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors, however, is that there is currently no domestic supply chain of HALEU that can provide fuel at commercial levels. A full and viable fuel supply chain for advanced nuclear energy includes the mining, conversion and enrichment of uranium, deconversion of HALEU into a metal and the fabrication of fuel rods that ultimately power the reactors.
There is bipartisan support for commercializing advanced nuclear energy and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been working to develop American enrichment capabilities and a domestic HAELU supply chain; but in order to achieve the ambitious timelines to bring these new technologies online, there needs to be additional action to secure HALEU at the federal level.
Producing Carbon-Free Energy Without Russia
In order to carve out a sustainable path to a carbon-free energy future, advanced nuclear energy fueled by HALEU must play a prominent role. At the same time, the U.S. must dissolve its dependence on Russian uranium to produce nuclear fuel. Historically, the U.S. has turned to Russia and its allies for a significant percentage of fuel to power the over 90 currently operating reactors in the U.S. today.
TerraPower has invested in a long-term vision for a domestic HALEU supply chain on multiple fronts. However, early advanced reactor strategies relied on Russia’s established HALEU production facilities to provide the first core loads while domestic capabilities were developed. As a result of the invasion in Ukraine, this is no longer a viable approach and the urgency to develop domestic advanced fuel infrastructure has been thrust to the forefront.
The U.S. is taking steps in the right direction. Earlier this year, Congress appropriated $45 million for the Advanced Nuclear Fuel Availability Program to help expedite the commercialization of HALEU in the U.S. This month’s Inflation Reduction Act dictates special provisions for HALEU. This includes setting aside $700 million to support the availability of HALEU for both research and commercial uses, the licensing of production facilities and the establishment of a HALEU stockpile. In sum, it is part of the solution for the long-term HALEU production in the U.S.
But one more critical piece of the puzzle remains. In order for advanced nuclear development to stay on track we need a short-term solution, along with congressional support, until the domestic HALEU supply chain is fully operational.
Downblending in the Short-Term
Time is of the essence. While Congressional action has been positive so far, it will be years before a domestic supply chain can produce HALEU at the commercial levels needed to sustain advanced nuclear operations in the U.S. With Russian uranium no longer viable, now is the time to seriously explore downblending highly enriched uranium (HEU) sources as a plausible way to garner the fuel needed for the initial cores of reactors being deployed this decade. We are working with Congress and DOE to identify possible sources of available HEU.
Downblending is only a temporary solution for the first core load. This does not negate the need for a fully functional, fully funded advanced fuel availability program for subsequent cores and to meet the growing demand of advanced nuclear technologies.
TerraPower is committed to supporting domestic HALEU production and continues to work to ensure the Natrium reactor demonstration project, as well as future Natrium plants, will have the reliable fuel supply needed. Congressional leaders like Senator Barrasso (R-WY) and Senator Manchin (D-WV) have been true partners for the nuclear energy community, supporting and championing the need for advanced nuclear technologies and the establishment of a domestic supply chain of HALEU. With dedication and urgency across multiple levels of industry and government, advanced nuclear will be able to help the U.S. and countries around the globe achieve a carbon-free future.
*The Natrium reactor is a TerraPower and GE Hitachi technology