The U.S. government is taking its first step towards encouraging more high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel in the United States, paving the way for a new generation of nuclear reactors that promise to be safer and more efficient than traditional designs.
On Tuesday, the Department of Energy issued a request for information for its plans to create commercial quantities of the new type of uranium fuel in the U.S. Currently, the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration makes only enough uranium for its defense and nonproliferation missions. This is a preliminary, information-gathering step and will be used to inform a report which DOE has to provide to Congress. Comments are due on or before January 13, 2022.
Senator Joe Manchin, D.-W. Va, who has been the main Democratic holdout standing in the way of getting President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion domestic social welfare and green energy bill through the Senate, expressed support for the move.
“I am pleased that the Department of Energy is moving ahead with this announcement that will lead to a domestic supply of high-assay low enriched uranium in the United States,” said Manchin, who is also Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“I have long supported the commercialization of advanced nuclear technologies as a zero-emission source of baseload energy, and I am committed to funding the Advanced Nuclear Fuel program as authorized in the Energy Act of 2020 to prevent reliance on Russia or other foreign suppliers to fuel the next generation of nuclear power,” Manchin said.
West Virginia has a long history of coal mining and is the second largest coal-producing state in the United States after Wyoming. Burning coal for energy emits carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Nuclear power is considered clean energy because once a nuclear power plant is constructed, the power generation releases no greenhouse gases.
HALEU fuel is enriched with a higher percentage of uranium-235, the specific isotope used in nuclear fission reactions. Conventional uranium processing generates fuel that has about 5% U-235, while HALEU is enriched with up to 20% U-235.
That more highly enriched uranium is necessary for smaller next-generation nuclear reactors, which aim to be cheaper to build, safer, and capable of moderating their output more quickly to meet demand, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
“Advanced reactors are an incredible asset to have in our collective fight against climate change,” said Kathryn Huff, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy at the DOE, said.
“If we don’t proactively take the steps now to ensure a sufficient and diverse supply of HALEU, then reactor demonstration and deployment projects, like those funded in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, won’t be fueled in time to help us slow the impacts of climate change,” Huff said.