What the Hell is HALEU? And Where Will We Get it? Advanced Reactors Want to Know

August 19, 2022

Canary Media:

Nuclear fission startup TerraPower, founded and chaired by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has raised $750 million to develop advanced nuclear reactors to serve as alternatives to the light-water reactors that make up the vast majority of the world’s civilian nuclear fleet. But cash alone won’t be enough to get the startup over the many hurdles that stand in its way.

TerraPower’s Natrium fast reactor design is radically different from the design of traditional nuclear reactors. For starters, it’s smaller. A typical reactor in the U.S. produces 1,000 megawatts of power. TerraPower’s first demonstration reactor, now being planned for a site in Wyoming, will have a capacity of 345 megawatts. The smaller size could enable the reactor to be built cheaply in a factory and not expensively on-site.

The Natrium reactor will also use a different fuel and a different coolant than standard nuclear reactors. It will be fueled by high-assay low-enriched uranium(HALEU), which is enriched with more uranium than the fuel used in traditional nuclear plants. And the coolant will be high-temperature liquid sodium instead of water. 

TerraPower’s new funding includes $250 million from South Korean chaebol SKGroup. Previous funding for the firm has come from Gates and Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway. The company was also awarded $80 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to work on its Natrium reactor design.

Canary covered TerraPower’s technology in detail last year when the firm announced that Bechtel will build its first reactor in Kemmerer, Wyoming, near the site of a coal-fired power plant that is scheduled to be shut down. The U.S. Department of Energy and private investors will split the cost of the demonstration project. 

The startup claims that this first reactor will be in operation by 2028 and will cost $4 billion, including engineering, procurement and construction. If TerraPower comes anywhere close to meeting those wildly ambitious goals, it will strongly differentiate itself from the traditional nuclear industry, which is notorious for missed deadlines and shocking cost overruns. The only two conventional nuclear reactors currently under construction in the U.S., at the Vogtle plant in Georgia, are already six years overdue and will cost utility customers over $30 billion, more than double the original price tag.

One big new problem for TerraPower emerged earlier this year: its fuel source. The only facility currently able to supply commercial quantities of HALEU is in Russia. That wasn’t a great situation even before Russia invaded Ukraine. Now that the war in Ukraine has been grinding on for six months and shows no signs of resolution, relying on fuel sourced from Russia is untenable. 

In March, TerraPower said it had cut ties with Tenex, the Russian state-owned company from which it had planned to source HALEU, Wyoming-based nonprofit news outlet WyoFile reported. ​“When Russia invaded Ukraine it became very clear, for a whole set of reasons — moral reasons as well as commercial reasons — that using Russian fuel is no longer an option for us,” said Jeff Navin, TerraPower’s director of external affairs.

TerraPower did just get good news this week when President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law. The legislation includes $700 million to help build up a domestic supply chain for HALEU. The funding could give a boost to the U.S. Department of Energy’s plans to launch a congressionally authorized HALEUAvailability Program. But developing HALEU production capacity in the U.S. will take years. 

Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy:

Previous to the Ukraine invasion, there was a different potential involvement that Russian enriched uranium might have had with some of the future advanced reactors under development in the United States. In recent decades, a variety of private companies have been founded to pursue commercialization of different advanced reactor designs. Some of these designs use uranium with significantly higher enrichments than light water reactors use: instead of 3–5 percent, the enrichments may be as high as 15–19.75 percent. Currently, the only commercial source of this high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) is Russia.

In 2020, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced a series of large cost-share awards with some of these private reactor developers. For the biggest demonstrations, DOE
would contribute a share of the demonstration costs, as long as private entities more than matched that investment. Given that Russia has been the only commercial source of HALEU, some advanced reactor developers were either planning to obtain—or at least considered obtaining—their first fuel load’s worth of HALEU from Russia. In 2018, the Nuclear Energy Institute reported (based on company inputs) that estimated HALEU needs might potentially ramp up from tens of metric tons per year in the mid-2020s to over a 100 metric tons per year in the late 2020s.

Existing enrichment companies, such as Urenco, Orano, GLE, and Centrus, could make HALEU, but these companies would likely be hesitant to invest too much in building HALEU infrastructure and completing NRC licensing without being confident there will in fact be a profitable market for the product. Industry estimates that establishing a commercial-scale production capability would cost more than $500 million. On the reactor developer side, if a single company were to come to an enrichment company and ask to buy only the amount of HALEU they needed—perhaps at the level of tens of metric tons—the price per kilogram of HALEU would be much higher than if the associated development costs could be spread over a large order. Challenges—real and perceived—with HALEU fuel procurement could in turn deter investment in the deployment of some non-light water reactor designs. This is the “chicken and egg” dilemma that the US government is currently grappling with.

Buying the first core loads of HALEU from Russia would have enabled reactor developers to easily meet their stated timelines for when they needed fuel. It would also have allowed the federal government to gauge at some level how the construction and operation of the first non-light water reactor projects were executed before committing potentially large amounts of money toward domestic HALEU production.

If the Russian supply option were off the table, however, the United States would need to turn in earnest to remaining possibilities. Congress directed DOE to establish a HALEU availability program in the Energy Act of 2020. At the end of 2021, DOE had already put out a request for information regarding planning for the establishment of a program to support the availability of HALEU for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use, and subsequently received a variety of responses. Multiple bills in the 117th Congress have been introduced that would further authorize and direct DOE to pursue HALEU production programs. Centrus has been working with DOE since 2019 to demonstrate a capability to produce HALEU and obtained NRC approval for HALEU production in 2021.


5 Responses to “What the Hell is HALEU? And Where Will We Get it? Advanced Reactors Want to Know”

  1. neilrieck Says:

    Sorry for repeating an old response but Heavy Water reactors made by Candu Energy in Canada “do not require ANY enriched uranium” and are already in place all over planet Earth (short list: Canada, Korea, China, Romania, India)


  2. John Oneill Says:

    Fast reactors were originally intended to produce plutonium from the much more common (99.3%) Uranium 238 isotope. Then they could run on a mix of Pu and U238, converting the non-fissile, but fertile, U238 into a number of different plutonium isotopes. The USA has over 60 tonnes of plutonium surplus to its weapons requirements, and had an agreement with Russia that both countries would build fast reactors to denature their plutonium. More than a couple of months in a reactor will contaminate bomb-grade plutonium (about 90% Pu239) with other isotopes, notably Pu240, which is too unstable to use in a weapon, though it’s fine in a reactor.
    Russia has built a couple of fast reactors, but the US, which hasn’t really built any reactors apart from naval power plants for thirty years, ran into problems, and wanted to use dilution and disposal instead. Russia baulked, and the agreement is in abeyance.
    Bill Gates’ Terrapower reactor owes a lot to the Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which ran for thirty years at Idaho National Lab. That used 67% U235, not too far below weapons grade uranium. Some of the EBR II fuel is still stored there, and has been earmarked for a tiny reactor startup called Oklo. After use in EBR II, it is down to 65% enrichment – still much higher than the ‘Natrium’s ~20%. The original plan for EBR II was to develop ways of reprocessing the fuel so it could be used indefinitely, but Bill Clinton shut the program down unfinished. Terrapower’s Natrium is supposed to avoid the need for reprocessing by just shuffling the fuel assemblies round in the reactor vessel, so that an active core seeds more fuel in the fertile rods around it. A neat trick if it works, but the regulatory hurdles to jump over on the way are much more difficult than they were in the sixties.

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    The startup claims that this first reactor will be in operation by 2028 and will cost $4 billion, including engineering, procurement and construction.

    Meanwhile, while we’re waiting for that 345 MWe Natrium reactor to go online, utilities will keep adding PV solar:

    • John Oneill Says:

      The US has 121 GW of solar power, versus 95 GW of nuclear, but the solar produced 2.8% of the country’s power over 2021, nuclear made 19%. Does that make one watt of nuclear potential worth five of solar? No – it’s worth far more than that.
      1. Solar without storage is useless at night.
      2. Winter nights are longer and colder, and there’s no viable seasonal storage at scale.
      3. Nuclear is ideal for covering evening peak demand, then charging vehicles overnight.
      4. The 2/3 of nuclear energy that doesn’t become electricity doesn’t have to be waste heat – it’s already used for district heating in several countries, and it will become important for desalination as fresh water gets scarcer.
      5. Nuclear steadies the grid – a 200-tonne metronome keeps the A.C. on beat.
      6. Power plants near cities minimise transmission costs. Indian Point used to provide a third of New York’s power from right next to it. The three large gas plants they built to replace it do the same, at the cost of pouring nitrous oxide into its residents’ lungs. The Quebec hydro and upstate wind that was supposed to replace it will need billions of dollars worth of high voltage power lines.

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