U.K. backs advanced reactor future with £300 million for HALEU enrichment

January 16, 2024, 7:01AMNuclear News
Urenco UK’s Capenhurst enrichment site, which received a grant in July 2023 to prepare for HALEU enrichment. (Photo: Urenco UK)

The United Kingdom’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero announced plans on January 7 to invest £300 million (about $383 million) to build a high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) enrichment facility in northwest England. The goal? To “end Russia’s reign as the only commercial producer of HALEU.” Britain is now the first European country to declare that it will begin HALEU enrichment in a bid for supply chain security.

“We stood up to Putin on oil and gas and financial markets, we won’t let him hold us to ransom on nuclear fuel,” said Claire Coutinho, secretary of state for energy security and net zero.

Global and domestic needs: The United Kingdom is doing its part to fulfil a pledge made in early December at COP28 with four other nations—the United States, Canada, France, and Japan—to collectively mobilize more than $4.2 billion in public and private funds for fuel security over the next three years. But the country also wants to be able to fuel its own advanced reactors.

In April 2022, Boris Johnson’s administration announced plans to deliver up to 24 GW of nuclear power by 2050. On January 11, the government released a civil nuclear roadmap detailing how they will get there. Securing a reliable HALEU supply is part of the plan. According to the road map, the country is committed “to establishing full front-end fuel cycle capabilities (conversion, enrichment, deconversion, fabrication) for enriched uranium up to 19.75 percent by the end of this decade, and to doing this in partnership with industry.”

Where is the money going? It’s in the northwest of England that Urenco UK already operates an LEU enrichment facility (in Capenhurst, Cheshire) and that Westinghouse already operates the country’s only nuclear fuel manufacturing site (Springfields in Preston, Lancashire). The first U.K. HALEU enrichment plant is scheduled to begin operations in that region in the early 2030s. An additional £10 million will go to “develop the skills and sites to produce other advanced nuclear fuels in the U.K., helping to secure long term domestic nuclear fuel supply and support international allies.”

In July 2023, the U.K. Nuclear Fuel Fund, established in 2022, awarded several grants—giving Westinghouse a total of £10.5 million to upgrade and expand the Springfields facility to develop light water reactor fuel variants and support the potential production of HALEU–based fuels for the United Kingdom’s new Generation III and IV fission reactors, while Urenco UK got over £9.5 million to help build enrichment capabilities to produce uranium enriched to between 5 and 20 percent U-235 at the Capenhurst site.

The United Kingdom is also reviving its uranium conversion capabilities to convert yellowcake uranium into uranium hexafluoride prior to enrichment, according to the January 7 funding announcement. This too is part of the nation’s goal to “displace Russia from the global nuclear fuels market.” According to the government’s announcement, “government and industry are together investing up to £26 million to bring this capability back to the U.K. by the end of the decade.”

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