The Department of Energy asks no fewer than 21 multipart questions in its request for information on plans to set up a new program to ensure the availability of high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) in the United States, encompassing the who, what, when, where, and how of HALEU enrichment, deconversion, fabrication, and transportation. Interested parties were given just 30 days from the December 14 announcement to send their input to the DOE; the deadline is January 13.
Details: Written comments and information are requested on or before January 13. They can be submitted online at regulations.gov or by email to email@example.com in a Microsoft Word or a PDF file. See the full request for information published in the Federal Register for additional information.
Whether or not the Build Back Better bill provision that would earmark $500 million for the HALEU Availability Program becomes law, the DOE was charged with establishing a program to support the availability of HALEU for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use in the Energy Act of 2020, and responses to the RFI will be used to prepare a report to Congress.
Advanced reactors drive future demand: Most of the advanced reactors under development in the United States require HALEU fuel—enriched to between 5 and 19.75 percent uranium-235—to achieve smaller designs, longer operating cycles, and increased efficiencies, but HALEU is not available at commercial scale from domestic suppliers. Limited U.S. stocks of high-enriched uranium (which can be downblended to create HALEU) are already earmarked for defense and nonproliferation missions and other government programs, including medical isotope production and NASA space exploration.
The lack of a commercial supply chain threatens to impact the development and deployment of U.S. advanced reactors; in turn, supply chain–dampened expectations for advanced reactor deployment increase the risk and uncertainty for private investment in the production of HALEU. This supply and demand stalemate, frequently described as a “chicken-and-egg” problem, is the target of the planned HALEU Availability Program.
“Advanced reactors are an incredible asset to have in our collective fight against climate change,” said Kathryn Huff, principal deputy assistant secretary for the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy. “If we don’t proactively take the steps now to ensure a sufficient and diverse supply of HALEU, then reactor demonstration and deployment projects, like those funded in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, won’t be fueled in time to help us slow the impacts of climate change.”
The DOE projects that more than 40 metric tons of HALEU will be needed by 2030, with additional amounts required each year to deploy a new fleet of advanced reactors. That 40 metric tons would include the demonstration of TerraPower’s Natrium and X-energy’s Xe-100, Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program projects that will receive $2.5 billion in funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in November.
RFI specifics: Section 2001 of the Energy Act of 2020 defined some parameters of the HALEU Availability Program. It called for a HALEU Consortium to partner with the DOE, provide information on HALEU requirements, and purchase HALEU. The HALEU Availability Program would sunset on September 30, 2034, or 90 days after an adequate supply is established. The program would also prioritize energy justice issues and target 40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to go toward disadvantaged communities.
Details were left to the DOE, which is now asking for comments on questions including which organizations or entities should be included in the HALEU Consortium, how much HALEU will be needed in five years, what future demand will be necessary to support a supply chain, and the implications of co-locating front-end fuel cycle facilities such as enrichment and deconversion.
Another thing to be determined: how money would change hands. In a question about “contracting vehicles,” the following are listed as possibilities: “Production contracts (of what volume and length); take-or-pay contracts (U.S. government agrees to take specified volume of goods and/or services for a specified time period); partnerships and/or cost-sharing of infrastructure development, including with allies and partners; and payment-for-production milestones.”
As the following questions posed to companies interested in transportation services illustrate, RFI questions range from the general: “What actions could be taken, when, and by whom, to address the identified gaps or challenges?” to the astonishingly specific: “If your company were to receive an order for a 30-inch transportation package that is certified by NRC to contain enriched uranium hexafluoride up to 19.75 wt. percent uranium-235, what do you expect would be the earliest delivery date possible?”
Backed by Manchin: “I am pleased that the Department of Energy is moving ahead with this announcement that will lead to a domestic supply of high-assay, low-enriched uranium in the United States,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.V.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I have long supported the commercialization of advanced nuclear technologies as a zero-emission source of baseload energy, and I am committed to funding the advanced nuclear fuel program as authorized in the Energy Act of 2020 to prevent reliance on Russia or other foreign suppliers to fuel the next generation of nuclear power. This program will help the U.S. maintain our nuclear supply chain, create high-paying manufacturing jobs, and reassert U.S. leadership on the international stage.”