Centrus completes HALEU enrichment cascade construction
Centrus Energy announced February 9 that it has finished assembling a cascade of uranium enrichment centrifuges and most of the associated support systems ahead of its contracted demonstration of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) production by the end of 2023. When the 16-machine cascade begins operating inside the Piketon, Ohio, American Centrifuge Plant, which has room for 11,520 machines, it will be the first new U.S.-technology based enrichment plant to begin production in 70 years.
“This is a major milestone for Centrus, for the advanced nuclear sector, and for the vital effort to restore America's domestic uranium enrichment capability,” said Centrus Energy president and chief executive officer Daniel B. Poneman. “We are strongly committed to pioneering production of HALEU to support the deployment of U.S. advanced reactor designs around the world. Our goal is to scale up this facility to meet the full range of commercial, government, and national security requirements for uranium enrichment, including low-enriched uranium for existing reactors and HALEU for advanced reactors.”
Contracts: Under a previous cost-shared contract signed with the Department of Energy in 2019, Centrus installed centrifuges and secured a license amendment from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in June 2021 to enrich uranium up to 20 percent fissile U-235. In November 2022, the DOE announced a new contract with Centrus to finish the cascade, complete final regulatory steps, begin operating the cascade, and produce HALEU.
Specifically, the new contract calls for Centrus to enrich uranium hexafluoride gas to produce 20 kilograms of 19.75 percent enriched HALEU by December 31. An annual production rate of 900 kilograms of HALEU per year would be expected thereafter, subject to appropriations, with options to produce more material under the contract in future years.
Future prospects: The DOE is exploring different avenues to meet domestic needs through its HALEU Availability Program, with a focus on a sustainable commercial supply chain. That includes using $700 million of earmarked funds from the Inflation Reduction Act to initiate a program of offtake contracts to stock a DOE-owned HALEU bank. Industry projections vary, but the DOE projects that more than 40 metric tons of HALEU will be needed before the end of the decade, with additional amounts required each year.
Centrus has said that a full-scale HALEU cascade, consisting of 120 individual centrifuge machines, could be brought on-line about three and a half years after funding is secured, and that subsequent machines could be added every six months. A 120-machine cascade could produce about six metric tons of HALEU per year.
What’s left to do? Centrus has completed initial testing of the cascade and support systems. Before operations can begin, Centrus must finish construction of the remaining support systems, including a fissile materials storage area. Final NRC operational readiness reviews will be required before cascade operations and HALEU production can begin by the end of 2023.