Just add HALEU: TerraPower and GNF-A break ground on fast reactor fuel facility

October 26, 2022, 9:21AMNuclear News
Natrium Fuel Facility groundbreaking. (Photo: GNF-A)

Global Nuclear Fuel–Americas (GNF-A) and TerraPower announced their plans to build a Natrium fuel fabrication facility next to GNF-A’s existing fuel plant near Wilmington, N.C, on October 21. While more than 50 years of fuel fabrication at the site have supported the boiling water reactor designs of GE (GNF-A’s majority owner) and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH), the Natrium Fuel Facility will produce metallic high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel for the sodium fast reactor—Natrium—that TerraPower is developing with GEH.

TerraPower and GNF-A representatives ceremoniously broke ground about one week after X-energy and its subsidiary TRISO-X did the same for a TRISO fuel facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. It’s an unmistakable signal that advanced reactor developers plan sustained demand for HALEU feedstock, and together with the Department of Energy’s recent HALEU Industry Day and Sources Sought notice on a plan to stock a HALEU bank through offtake contracts, advanced reactor technology and fuel investors may now have the green light they’ve been waiting for.

TerraPower’s plans: TerraPower has cost-shared funding from the DOE through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) for the more than $200 million Natrium Fuel Facility. Construction is expected to begin in 2023 and, once complete, is expected to support up to 100 new, permanent jobs. In 2021, TerraPower announced its intention to build the first Natrium reactor, also with cost-shared ARDP funding, at a retiring coal facility in Kemmerer, Wyo.

“Reinvigorating the domestic nuclear supply chain is a critical step in building the next generation of reactors,” said Tara Neider, TerraPower senior vice president and Natrium project director. “This facility will create a reliable source of fuel for our first demonstration plant and additional Natrium plants in the future. We are pleased to join an industry expert like GNF-A in this effort.”

Who’s got the HALEU? Like many advanced reactor designs, Natrium would use HALEU fuel enriched to the Category II level, between 10 and 19.75 percent fissile uranium-235. Just as there is currently no commercial HALEU enrichment capacity in the United States, there are also no Category II fuel fabrication facilities licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to handle uranium at enrichments of 19.75 percent or less. Recognizing that a HALEU supply infrastructure would be needed, the ARDP funding opportunity announcement released in May 2020 required applicants to “establish a plan by which they would obtain the fuel/special nuclear material needed for their projects.”

Over two years ago—after submitting an ARDP application but before it was announced as one of two recipients of a demonstration award—TerraPower announced plans to partner with Centrus Energy to establish commercial-scale HALEU gas centrifuge production facilities and a metal fuel fabrication facility. X-energy, the other ARDP demo award recipient, has been pursuing plans to license and construct a TRISO-based uranium fuel facility, also with Centrus as a partner, to fabricate 15.5 percent HALEU pebble fuel for the Xe-100 high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor, as well as TRISO-based HALEU for other reactor developers.

The Energy Act of 2020 authorized the DOE to support HALEU availability, and the DOE recently issued guidance and a Sources Sought notice ahead of a request for proposals, asking potential respondents how soon they could deliver 25 metric tons per year of HALEU enriched in the United States from newly mined uranium. Offtake contracts for six or more years of HALEU production at that rate could be used to stock a DOE-owned HALEU bank to “support [HALEU] availability for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use.” The DOE wants to see commercial HALEU enrichment facilities operating “as soon as possible,” backed by a sustainable U.S. uranium mining, conversion, storage, and transport infrastructure.

Wilmington workforce: On the day of the groundbreaking, GEH president and chief executive officer Jay Wileman announced plans to grow the company’s workforce by about 500 jobs over five years. About 100 of those new employees will support the Natrium Fuel Facility.

“The Natrium Fuel Facility will help establish the fuel supply chain that will be required for the U.S. to deploy advanced reactors domestically and globally,” said Tammy Orr, senior vice president of fuel products for GNF-A. “This is a significant investment in our operation, and we’re excited to build on our more than 50-year legacy as a fuel manufacturer in support of carbon-free energy generation.”

Others will join GEH to support the commercial deployment of the BWRX-300 small modular reactor, the latest in GEH’s long line of BWR designs. GEH is working with Ontario Power Generation to deploy a BWRX-300 at the Darlington site that could be complete as early as 2028. TVA in the United States, SaskPower in Canada, and Synthos Green Energy in Poland are among other potential BWRX-300 deployments. Unlike the ARDP demo awardees, the BWRX-300 would use an existing, licensed fuel design.

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