The cost and fabrication of fuel for nuclear reactors has never been a big deal. Because of its incredibly high energy density, thousands of times less uranium is needed than coal or natural gas to produce the same amount of energy.
As a result, the cost of nuclear fuel is a small part of the overall cost of nuclear power, barely 10%, and most of that is fabrication. The cost of nuclear power has nothing to do with the cost of uranium. When uranium prices rose 1,000% in 2007, it had little to no effect on the price of nuclear power.
In contrast, the cost of the fossil fuel itself is the majority of the cost of fossil fuel power, over 80%. Therefore, the cost of their power goes up and down directly with the cost of the fuel, particularly natural gas and oil.
From the physics of nuclear power, the higher the enrichment of U-235 to U-238, the higher the burn-up rate and power levels of the reactor, the longer the fuel can perform in the reactor before having to be replaced, and the more energy that can be obtained from a specific amount of fuel.
This last point is key to the future of nuclear power. The more energy resulting from each ton of fuel is critical for driving costs down and reducing the amount of fuel needed to power society, as well as the amount of waste. The higher the enrichment, the less the amount of long-lived isotopes in the resulting nuclear waste.
That is why most advanced reactor designs call for using higher enrichments. Staying between 10% and 20% enriched U-235 avoids weapons issues. This is termed High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) fuel.
Most nuclear power reactors use Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) which is enriched only to about 3% to 5% U-235.
We’ve known this for a while. The hurdles are only political and bureaucratic. Of course, I use the term “only” very loosely. These hurdles are usually more difficult than any technical or scientific hurdle.
As in most supply chains, the amount of material produced is just about what is needed. Having excess inventory on hand doesn’t help with nuclear since nuclear power plants have at least two years’ worth of fuel onsite at any time.
So the claim that insufficient supplies of HALEU will hinder new reactor design deployment is hollow. The reason there is no commercial supply of HALEU in North America at the moment is because there were no companies with a likelihood of producing reactors soon enough that would need that fuel – until now.
The primary source of commercially-available HALEU today is from Russia. But there are enrichment facilities in the United States and elsewhere that produce LEU that could be ramped up in less time than the reactors can be deployed. Enrichment facilities are not that difficult to build.
But the United States is moving forward. The latest URENCO enrichment facility in Eunice, New Mexico went into LEU production only four years after regulatory approval, and they have recently announced a program to produce HALEU and to construct a facility dedicated to just that.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory will produce HALEU for upcoming new reactor demonstrations and for new fuels like CCTE’s ANEEL that will replace older fuels in some existing reactor designs.
In addition, BWX Technologies has a contract with INL to expand and upgrade its TRIstructural-ISOtropic (TRISO) nuclear fuel manufacturing line. TRISO is the fuel for pebble-bed and other advanced reactors, and uses HALEU.
DOE has also promised to provide the first fuel load of HALEU for Oklo’s micro-reactor, the Aurora Powerhouse. This particular HALEU is being made with spent fuel, which is not a workable solution for many advanced reactors, but Oklo plans to produce its own HALEU soon.
To address the overall problem of domestic supply, Congress has ordered DOE to enable more HALEU production. The Department is developing a plan to establish that supply.
Several commercial entities are gearing up for HALEU production around the world. Orano Conversion & Enrichment, a multinational nuclear fuel cycle company headquartered in Hauts-de-Seine, France, is assessing the enrichment market and the expected requirements for HALEU in anticipation of supplying HALEU.
But nuclear fuel and services provider Centrus Energy is ahead of most competitors. Their commercial-scale, domestic facility in Piketon, Ohio, Centrus will produce HALEU needed to fuel many next-generation reactor designs, including the recently announced Natrium Power Storage System designed by Bill Gates’ TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, as well as new fuels like CCTE’s ANEEL fuel that is a mixture of HALEU and thorium.
Having already received license-approval from NRC, Centrus expects to start production in 2022, which would certainly handle any domestic needs over the next ten years.
So don’t worry that fuel supply is some kind of bottleneck in the advance of nuclear power. The fuel will come well before the reactors.