Senate nuclear fuel bill targets “all viable options” for LEU and HALEU supply

February 21, 2023, 7:01AMNuclear News
Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill in southeastern Utah is the only operating conventional uranium mill in the United States. (Photo: Energy Fuels)

The bipartisan Nuclear Fuel Security Act (NFSA), introduced in the Senate last week, would authorize the Department of Energy to establish a Nuclear Fuel Security Program to “ensure a disruption in Russian uranium supply would not impact the development of advanced reactors or the operation of the United States’ light water reactor fleet.” The bill was introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.V.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) Committee; Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.), ranking member of the Senate ENR committee; and Sen. Jim Risch (R., Idaho).

The NFSA calls for the DOE to “expeditiously increase domestic production” of both low-enriched uranium (LEU) and high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) to “ensure the availability of domestically produced, converted, enriched, deconverted, and reduced uranium,” and to address “gaps and deficiencies” in that front end of the nuclear fuel cycle by “partnering with countries that are allies or partners of the United States if domestic options are not practicable.”

To prevent fuel supply issues from delaying the DOE’s planned Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program demos of TerraPower’s Natrium sodium-cooled fast reactor and X-energy’s high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor, the bill calls on the energy secretary to consider and implement “all viable options” to produce HALEU from DOE inventories and for “partnering with countries that are allies or partners of the United States to meet those needs and schedules.”

The motivation: “Russia’s war against Ukraine has drastically disrupted energy supply chains around the world, and now is the time to take a hard look at how we source the raw materials necessary to power our nation and develop advanced energy technologies,” said Manchin. “This bill will help to start that process by directing the Secretary of Energy to establish a program that will expand both our uranium conversion and enrichment capacity to meet our domestic fuel needs. No matter what Russia does, the United States should always be ready and able to supply nuclear fuel for ourselves and our friends and allies.”

“It’s time for America to ramp up uranium production so we can eliminate our dependence on Russia,” said Barrasso. “We are stronger and safer as a nation when our nuclear fuel supply chain starts at home. Our bipartisan legislation will strengthen American energy security.”

“Enriched uranium is key to unlocking the boundless potential for clean and reliable nuclear energy. Just as importantly, it’s a pillar of American national security,” Risch added. “I am proud to work with Senators Manchin and Barrasso on legislation to increase uranium production in the U.S., reduce dependence on Russia, and diminish Russian domination of the global nuclear fuel supply chain.”

Previewed in 2022: The NFSA combines key elements of two separate bills introduced by the same senators in April 2022 (and later introduced in the House). Manchin and Risch introduced the International Nuclear Energy Act (INEA; S. 4064), outlining the Nuclear Fuel Security Program, while Barrasso put forward the Fueling Our Nuclear Future Act (H.R. 8723), which focused on HALEU supply for advanced reactors and would have supplied $1.5 billion over 10 years.

The new NFSA, like the INEA, would authorize $3.5 billion over 10 years for nuclear fuel security, but unlike the INEA it specifies that up to $1 billion of that money could go to HALEU purchases made by the end of fiscal year 2028. As written, the NFSA encourages diversity of suppliers and technology by calling for the DOE to arrange “two or more” contracts for LEU supply and “two or more” contracts for HALEU supply as well—a step up from the INEA, which called for “one or more” contracts for both LEU and HALEU. And while the new NFSA pushes the DOE to consider “all viable options,” including using department stockpiles not earmarked for national security purposes to produce HALEU, it also says the DOE, “to the extent practicable . . . shall not disrupt or replace market mechanisms by competing with U.S. nuclear energy companies.”

Boosting LEU stores: The NFSA is an authorization bill; if it is approved by both the Senate and House and becomes law, its provisions would be subject to congressional appropriations. Should it become law as written, the DOE would have six months from the date it is enacted to enter into two or more contracts to acquire “not less than 100 metric tons per year of LEU by December 31, 2026,” to “ensure diversity of supply in domestic uranium mining, conversion, enrichment, and deconversion capacity and technologies, including new capacity, among U.S. nuclear energy companies.”

The bill would also expand the American Assured Fuel Supply (AAFS) Program by merging it with the Uranium Reserve Program. The AAFS program was established in 2011 using LEU created by downblending 17.4 metric tons of surplus high-enriched uranium. In December 2020, Congress made $75 million available to stand up the Uranium Reserve Program and purchase uranium from domestic uranium producers. As described in the NFSA, the expanded AAFS could benefit both “a domestic or foreign recipient” experiencing a supply disruption “for which uranium cannot be obtained through normal market mechanisms or under normal market conditions.”

Protecting power producers: In setting up the Nuclear Fuel Security Program, the DOE would be asked, “to the maximum extent practicable,” to “ensure that the use of domestic uranium utilized as a result of that program does not negatively affect the economic operation of nuclear reactors in the United States.”

Last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funded the Civil Nuclear Credit Program, specifying that priority should be given to nuclear reactors that use uranium “produced, converted, enriched, and fabricated into fuel assemblies in the United States.” As written, the NFSA would have the DOE assess the anticipated funding requirements for the Civil Nuclear Credit Program, taking into account production credits and “any increased fuel costs associated with the use of domestic fuel that may arise from the implementation of that program.”

Focus on HALEU: The NFSA would establish the HALEU for Advanced Nuclear Reactor Demonstration Projects Program to “maximize the potential for the department to meet the needs and schedules of advanced nuclear reactor developers until such time that commercial enrichment and deconversion capability for HALEU exists in the United States at a scale sufficient to meet future needs” and “where practicable, to partner with countries that are allies or partners of the United States to meet those needs and schedules until that time.”

The bill would have the DOE arrange “two or more contracts with members of the consortium to begin acquiring not less than 20 metric tons per year of HALEU by December 31, 2027.” It provides incremental milestones as well: not less than 3 metric tons by September 30, 2024; not less than an additional 8 metric tons by December 31, 2025; and not less than an additional 10 metric tons by June 30, 2026.

With an emphasis on ensuring the quickest availability of commercially enriched HALEU, the bill would authorize the energy secretary to consider partnerships between two or more commercial enrichers as well as the use of uranium enriched up to 10 percent U-235 (sometimes referred to as LEU+) as a feedstock for further HALEU enrichment. The bill would also authorize the DOE to consider options “to replenish, as necessary, department stockpiles of uranium that were intended to be downblended for other purposes, but were instead used in carrying out activities under the HALEU for Advanced Nuclear Reactor Demonstration Projects Program.”

The Energy Act of 2020 authorized a HALEU Availability Program to build a sustainable commercial enrichment infrastructure, and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provided $700 million to get the program started. The DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) issued a Sources Sought Notice in October 2022, and a draft request for proposals from HALEU suppliers is anticipated soon. In December 2022, DOE-NE opened its new HALEU Consortium to “any U.S. entity, association, and government organization involved in the nuclear fuel cycle,” and—at the DOE’s discretion—“organizations whose facilities are in ally or partner nations.”

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