Proliferation Questions about Advanced Reactor Fuel

June 16, 2021

A rendering of Oklo’s first “next generation” nuclear power plant, dubbed the Aurora, that will be built at the Idaho National Laboratory. Credits: Image: Courtesy of Oklo


The U.S. nuclear power regulator has approved production of uranium fuel that is far more enriched than fuel for conventional nuclear power plants, the company aiming to make the material said on Monday.

The fuel is known as high-assay, low-enriched uranium, or HALEU. Nonproliferation experts are concerned about the fuel as it is easier to convert into fissile material, the key component of nuclear weapons, than conventional reactor fuel.

Centrus Energy Corp said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, approved the company’s request to produce HALEU at a Piketon, Ohio, plant, and it expects to be demonstrating production of the fuel early in 2022.

“This approval is a major milestone in our contract with the Department of Energy,” said Daniel Poneman, Centrus’ president and chief executive.

Under a 2019 contract with the Energy Department, Centrus is constructing AC100M centrifuges to demonstrate HALEU production. The $115 million, cost-shared contract runs through mid-2022.

Centrus said HALEU offers advantages for both existing and next-generation reactors, including “greater power density, improved reactor performance, fewer refueling outages, improved proliferation resistance, and smaller volumes of waste.”

The fuel will be allowed to be enriched to 5% to 20% uranium-235. That is less than the enrichment level of about 90% used in a nuclear weapon, but is far higher than fuel used in conventional nuclear reactors, which is about 3% to 5% enriched.

Nonproliferation experts voiced concern about the signal the approval sends to other countries, especially because Washington is trying to stop Iran from enriching 20% uranium.

“I am concerned about the potential development of advanced reactors and fuel cycles that will require large quantities of HALEU without a full evaluation of the consequences for proliferation and nuclear terrorism,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

A Centrus spokesperson said the United States “has always required adherence to the highest standards for safety, security and nonproliferation for any nation that buys our fuel, which is why it is so important that America does not cede this market to others.”

NRC spokesperson David McIntyre said the agency had no comment.

3 Responses to “Proliferation Questions about Advanced Reactor Fuel”

  1. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    No worries about proliferation in China, India, USA, Russia, Pakistan, Frogland and Britland. About half the worlds population already has em. Any others that wanna try making them will do it without ‘HALEU’ because sale will be controlled. By the way, most power nukes are hopeless at creating bomb material. Also, a nuke plant is NOT required to make a bomb. The ‘no nuke power’ ideology is contrary to saving the planet from CAGW. All excuses, real and imaginary, need to be put in perspective.

  2. neilrieck Says:

    I’ve said it before here and I’ll say it again. Reactor technologies that employ “heavy water as a moderator” do not require enriched fuels (so the weapon question never enters in)

    On top of that, DUPIC technology allows heavy water reactors to use depleted uranium fuel from light water reactors. (I believe this is being done in CANDI reactors located in South Korea and China)

    IMHO this changes everything by allowing nukes to become part of the green energy solution. The only CO2 generated here is when you pour the concrete for a new site.

    • John Oneill Says:

      South Korea and China did some tests to check the viability of DUPIC ( Direct Use of Pressurised water reactor fuel in Candu ), but they’re not actually doing it – each country built a few Candus, but use mostly PWRs. The PWR fuel is not just bunged straight into a Candu – for one thing, the rods are about twelve feet long, versus a foot and a half for Candus. The used fuel has to be decladded, ground up and heated to remove fission gases, and repacked into new tubes. This is not technically ‘reprocessing’, since the plutonium is not separated out, but it’s still working with very radioactive stuff, so could cost more than fresh fuel.
      An alternative second use for PWR fuel has been proposed by a Czech company. They want to re-use fuel from the Russian-built VVR 440, which is operating in Finland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Armenia, as well as Russia. They would put the spent fuel assemblies, unmodified, into a ‘swimming pool reactor’ containing heavy water. These are about forty feet deep, and have no pressurisation apart from the water depth. That means they can only run at about 90C, below boiling point, too cool for spinning a turbine but fine for district heating. Hopefully the less harsh working conditions would let the fuel assemblies, which would have already done four or five years in a power reactor, do one more winter. Many eastern European cities already have district heating built in, so cheap low-heat, low-pressure reactors could replace a lot of coal, and run on existing spent fuel stockpiles.

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