DOE issues broad nuclear energy strategy

April 30, 2020, 3:31PMNuclear News


The long-awaited report from the Trump administration’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group promises immediate support for the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, but it doesn’t stop there. “This is a road map for what we think needs to be done to not only revitalize, but reestablish American leadership for this entire industry,” said Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette as he introduced the report during a press call on April 23.

The scope: The report, “Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage,” amounts to a budget justification for federal investments in nuclear, some already announced or under way, and others that, for now, are only recommendations for future policy decisions. National security interests are identified as the driving motivation for expanding nuclear generation, minimizing commercial fleet fiscal vulnerabilities, ensuring that defense needs for uranium are met, and leveling the playing field against state-owned enterprises—not only in uranium and fuel services, but in reactor technology.

“The strategy is purposely comprehensive, and it outlines not only the executive branch activities, but also some recommendations for Congress, and some very specific regulatory actions that we think are important,” Brouillette said. “It recommends taking immediate and bold actions to strengthen the uranium mining and conversion industries and restore the viability of the entire front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. The strategy also ensures that there will be a healthy and growing nuclear energy sector to which uranium miners, fuel cycle providers, and reactor vendors can sell their products and services.”

How did we get here? To trace the development of the working group, we need to go back to July 2018, when two U.S. uranium mining companies petitioned the Department of Commerce (DOC) for support for the domestic uranium mining industry, which was floundering in the face of low uranium prices and stiff competition from overseas.

The DOC sent a report to President Donald Trump in May 2019 recommending a number of actions. In July 2019, Trump rejected the DOC’s recommendations and instead set up the Nuclear Fuel Working Group, giving it 90 days to issue a report. Trump “recognized rightfully at the time that this issue is much, much larger than simply the mining of the uranium out in the western part of the country,” Brouillette said.

The working group’s mandate was not to address just uranium mining, but “the entire nuclear fuel supply chain.” Its scope broadened even more once work began. The working group’s mission was a close fit to a review of nuclear energy’s competitiveness by the National Economic Council, the National Security Council, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and other federal agencies that Trump ordered in 2017. Both efforts contributed to the conclusions in the new report, which states, “The success of domestic uranium mines [is] intrinsically tied to the downstream success of U.S. commercial exports.”

The specifics

Immediate action for U producers:The first sign of definitive action from the working group was a new line item in the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request—a U.S. uranium reserve, funded at $150 million (with the same amount proposed annually for 10 years). That amount was judged to be sufficient to restart two U.S. uranium mines and bring the United States’ only conversion plant, Honeywell’s Metropolis Works, in Illinois, out of mothballs by 2022, according to senior DOE staff. A request for information issued by the Department of Energy on February 24 sought input on key challenges in reestablishing U.S. uranium mining and conversion operations, and the information gathered is expected to help the DOE implement the uranium reserve.

“There is no mandate that the U.S. civilian fleet buy U.S. uranium,” Brouillette said. However, a revitalized U.S. uranium mining and conversion industry would give the civilian nuclear fleet options for sourcing their uranium.

Immediate actions to support uranium mining and conversion for the front end of the fuel cycle could potentially be followed by support around 2025 for uranium enrichment using U.S.-origin technology.

Strengthen the fuel cycle and U.S. nuclear generators: The DOE’s bartering of surplus uranium, decried for years by U.S. uranium miners, will be stopped, and obstacles to domestic uranium extraction may be reduced through regulatory changes to streamline the permitting of mines and access to federal lands. The working group supports extending the DOC’s Russian Suspension Agreement to protect against uranium dumping in the U.S. market and prohibiting the potential importing of fuel fabricated in Russia or China for U.S. reactors.

The report states that the working group recognizes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) efforts to “accurately price state-publicized capacity resources in its recently announced Minimum Offer Price Rule”(MOPR), a characterization that may come as a surprise to the states and nuclear operators that strongly support the zero-emissions credit programs targeted by the MOPR. “Our view is that these subsidies have the effect of distorting the marketplace, especially those marketplaces that have auctions,” Brouillette said. “We support what the FERC is trying to do.”

Global nuclear leadership: “The U.S. government will move into markets currently dominated by Russian and Chinese state-owned enterprises and recover our position as the world leader in exporting best-in-class nuclear energy technology, and with it, strong nonproliferation standards,” the report states. Research, development, and demonstration programs that are already planned or under way were singled out for support, including R&D in accident tolerant fuels and high-assay low-enrichment uranium production using U.S.-origin technology. Following the three-year, $115-million HALEU enrichment demo at Centrus’s American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio, which is scheduled for completion in 2022, the technology “can be adopted by the private sector for commercialization and deployment after the three-year period, should the demonstration be successful and demand materialize.”

Not just fuel products and services, but reactor technology R&D is included as well. The report calls out the National Reactor Innovation Center and the Versatile Test Reactor, both at Idaho National Laboratory, which is also targeted for multiple near-term advanced reactor demonstrations of advanced reactors, including microreactors.

Empower U.S. export competitiveness: According to the report, the DOC estimates the value of the global civil nuclear market at $500 billion-$740 billion over the next 10 years. Steps identified as essential to increasing U.S. export competitiveness include establishing a nuclear industrial base analogous to the U.S. defense industrial base; funding R&D to produce fuel in the United States for non-U.S. reactor designs; increasing the efficiency of the export process and 123 agreements for exports of technologies, materials, and fuel; supporting the licensing of U.S. designs overseas; and developing the financial backing that will help U.S. vendors compete against complete bid packages by state-owned nuclear enterprises by fixing legacy policies that hamper nuclear exports. The DOE will designate a senior administration position to lead nuclear export coordination and implementation.

The DOE has made the full report available online.

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