The Russian-only supplier of the fuel is causing problems in plans to build small reactors.
US attempts to combat climate change through the development of a new generation small-scale nuclear power plant have apparently hit a potential roadblock: Russia is the only source of highly enriched fuel for these new reactors.
The Tenex unit of Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company, Rosatom, is the only firm that commercial markets high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU), the type of fuel that would be used by the advanced new reactors, Reuters reported on Thursday. “Production of HALEU is a critical mission, and all efforts to increase its production are being evaluated,”The spokesperson from the US Department of Energy (DOE), told media outlet.
Russia’s HALEU monopoly has long been a concern in Washington, but the Ukraine crisis elevated the issue to an emergency because, as Reuters said, “neither the government nor the companies developing the new advanced reactors want to rely on Moscow.” As a result, President Joe Biden’s administration may tap America’s stockpile of weapons-grade uranium to fill the supply void.
The government is looking at how much highly enriched Uranium should be set aside to support the development of new reactors. “We understand the need for urgent action to incentivize the establishment of a sustainable, market-driven supply of HALEU,”According to the spokesperson at DOE,
Washington regards the development of new nuclear reactors as an opportunity to cut carbon emissions, and help accelerate the switch away from fossil energy. These units can be built modularly and they are far more efficient than the current nuclear plants. They’re also quicker to build. However, they require fuel that’s enriched to 20% U-235, about four times the level used in today’s nuclear power plants. Rosatom, the sole commercial producer of this fuel, controls licensing to Western enrichers.
After Russia launched its offensive against Ukraine, the Biden administration led an international effort by economic sanctions to discredit Russia. “We didn’t have a fuel problem until a few months ago,”Jeff Navin was the director of TerraPower’s external affairs. “After the invasion of Ukraine, we were not comfortable doing business with Russia.”Bill Gates, a billionaire, is TerraPower’s founder and Chairman.
Biden announced in June a US grant of $14 million to help fund design and engineering work on a nuclear power project proposed in Romania. It would be replacing a coal-fueled facility. This new facility would use six modular next-generation reactors. “This will help bring online zero-emission nuclear energy to Europe faster, more cheaply and more efficiently,”According to the president
Reuters noted that, without a reliable source of HALEU, reactor developers fear they won’t receive orders for their new plants. And, without orders, potential suppliers of the highly enriched fuel likely won’t assemble the supply chains needed to replace the Russian producer.