White House would send the DOE $1.5 billion to set up reliable LEU/HALEU supply

September 8, 2022, 3:06PMNuclear News
HALEU in the form of 1.5–3 kg reguli ready for fuel fabrication. (Photo: INL)

Those who welcomed the $700 million earmarked for high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) supply in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) in August have cause to celebrate again. The White House sent a supplemental appropriation request to Congress on September 2 that would provide more than double the IRA funds if passed—$1.5 billion—for the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy to build a reliable supply of both low-enriched uranium for existing U.S. nuclear power plants and HALEU for the advanced reactors that will be built within the decade.

The $1.5 billion, described in the request as an “emergency requirement” to “reduce the reliance of the United States and friendly foreign countries on nuclear fuels from the Russian Federation and other insecure sources of LEU and HALEU,” comes with no expiration date and broad leeway for the secretary of energy to sign contracts.

ANS is heard: “This is a big deal,” said ANS Executive Director/CEO Craig Piercy. “Nuclear energy is experiencing a significant resurgence in the United States, through both the extended operations of our existing plants and the near-term ramp-up of advanced reactor designs. But we can’t run them without fuel, and we can’t rely on unstable or untrustworthy regimes. With this funding, the DOE would be able to send a strong market signal to the nuclear fuel industry that the time to start building new U.S. capacity is now.”

If the supplemental request is passed, the combined total of $2.2 billion for nuclear fuel research and supply is close to the mark of $2.5 billion in total funding over 10 years that ANS advocated for last year—before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raised the stakes—as “the only viable option available to avoid U.S. dependence on Russian material.”

The Energy Act of 2020 authorized the DOE to establish a HALEU Availability Program, and when the DOE issued a request for information in December 2021, ANS responded, warning that the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program was “at risk of significant deployment delays without the expeditious development of HALEU infrastructure.” The DOE has yet to say how it will structure the HALEU Availability Program.

Few restrictions: The supplemental request funds would “remain available until expended, for the acquisition and distribution of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and high-assay LEU (HALEU).” That “acquisition” of LEU and HALEU may include mining, conversion, enrichment, deconversion, and transportation services. In the case of HALEU, it could also include downblending DOE stocks of high-enriched uranium to produce HALEU enriched to between 5 and 19.75 percent uranium-235.

The DOE is granted permission to “enter into and perform such contracts, leases, cooperative agreements, or other similar transactions with public agencies and private organizations and persons . . . for such periods of time and subject to such terms and conditions as the Secretary deems appropriate.” Another provision specifies that section 3112 of the USEC Privatization Act, which dictates the limits of the DOE’s authority to sell or transfer uranium—including certain Russian-origin uranium—does not apply to sales or transfers made using the supplemental request funds.

Comparatively: The IRA funding signed into law on August 16 and the supplemental funding request have a few key differences:

  • The $1.5 billion in the supplemental request would remain available until expended, while the $700 million in the IRA is only appropriated through fiscal year 2026.
  • The IRA funding specifically supports the HALEU Availability Program established by the Energy Act of 2020 and includes no funds for LEU; the supplemental request applies to both HALEU and LEU.
  • The supplemental request is focused on reducing reliance on “nuclear fuels from the Russian Federation and other insecure sources of LEU and HALEU,” while the IRA funding language does not mention Russia.
  • The IRA funding includes $100 million for HALEU availability “for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use,” but the supplemental request does not mention research.

More in store? If the total $2.2 billion boost for nuclear fuel supply becomes a reality, it is not only close to amounts requested by ANS and other stakeholders, it also comes very close to the funding proposed in the Fueling our Nuclear Future bills under consideration in the Senate and House. As introduced in April by Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, that bill would appropriate $150 million per year for FYs 2023–2032 to establish a HALEU commercial availability program and another $200 million per year for FYs 2023–2027 to accelerate HALEU availability for fuel for advanced reactor demonstration projects.

The Fueling our Nuclear Future bill would direct the DOE to prioritize establishing a domestic HALEU enrichment capability and to use enriched uranium held by the DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration to fuel advanced reactor demonstrations until U.S. commercial enrichment is available. The bill explicitly excludes uranium sourced or processed by any entity owned or controlled by the governments of Russia and China. Reps. Elaine Luria (D., Va.) and Byron Donalds (R., Fla.) introduced a House version of the bill in August.

If the supplemental funding request passes, amendments to the Fueling our Nuclear Future bill could be made at the committee level to compliment the funding and address any remaining gaps.

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