Just a few hours after a new Speaker of the House of Representatives was elected on October 25, the White House sent a list of funding priorities for “critical domestic needs” to Congress for consideration as legislators restart the stalled annual appropriations process. Those priorities include $2.2 billion for low-enriched uranium (LEU) and high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) enrichment capabilities. And to ensure that investment in domestic HALEU enrichment pays off, the White House is also calling for a long-term ban on enriched uranium from Russia.
If you build it, the money will come? The Department of Energy estimates that more than 40 metric tons of HALEU could be needed by the end of the decade, with additional HALEU required each year thereafter to fuel a fleet of advanced reactors. But clear White House support for domestic HALEU enrichment has been lacking, even as the DOE has taken about two years to build a federal program to support a sustainable commercial HALEU infrastructure.
The Energy Act of 2020 authorized a HALEU Availability Program to support civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use. After soliciting input, the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy produced a plan in October 2022 to use offtake contracts to set up a HALEU bank. That was followed by a HALEU consortium set up in December 2022 and managed by the DOE as an information clearinghouse for enrichers, fuel fabricators, and others working in the front end of the fuel cycle.
In June 2023, the DOE released two draft requests for proposals to acquire HALEU—one covering enrichment services that could include the production of between 5 and 145 metric tons of HALEU during a 10-year performance period, and another for deconverting that HALEU from uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas to metal or oxide forms in preparation for fuel fabrication.
The White House’s new move: A White House fact sheet issued October 25—"White House Calls on Congress to Support Critical Domestic Needs”—includes the measure “Protect American Security and Bolster Energy Independence,” calling on Congress “to provide supplemental funding to improve long-term, domestic enrichment capabilities for low-enriched uranium and high-assay low-enriched uranium.” The funding is “a national security priority as dependence on Russian sources of uranium creates risk to the U.S. economy and the civil nuclear industry that has been further strained by Russia’s war in Ukraine,” the fact sheet states. “Without action, Russia will continue its hold on the global uranium market to the detriment of U.S. allies and partners. To be successful, this initiative would also require a long-term ban on enriched uranium product imports from the Russian Federation into the United States.”
A summary of the domestic funding request details how $6 billion requested for “American Security and Energy Independence” would be allocated. That includes $2.2 billion “for DOE to improve long-term, domestic enrichment capabilities for low-enriched uranium and high-assay low-enriched uranium.” The White House is also requesting $278 million “for DOE to mitigate domestic vulnerabilities and enhance U.S. competitiveness in the global market for isotopes.”
On October 20, the White House issued a Letter Regarding Critical National Security Funding Needs for FY 2024, transmitting a request for fiscal year 2024 emergency supplemental funding. The additional funding requests made October 25—including the LEU and HALEU enrichment requests—represent a domestic counterpart to the earlier call for supplemental national security funding.
Funding attempts: The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provided $700 million for the HALEU Availability Program. From those funds, $500 million was earmarked to help establish a sustainable commercial supply chain for HALEU—a start, but a number that falls far short of industry estimates of funding required.
Different bipartisan bills that would have put up additional funds to support HALEU enrichment were introduced in the Senate and the House in 2022, but failed to make it into law. The Nuclear Fuel Security Act of 2023, introduced in the Senate and House in different forms in February 2023 (and later reintroduced in the House in July) contains elements of those unsuccessful 2022 bills. The Nuclear Fuel Security Act of 2023, as put forward in the Senate, would authorize $3.5 billion over 10 years for nuclear fuel security and specifies that up to $1 billion of that money could go to HALEU purchases made by the end of FY 2028.