Next-gen nuclear reactors are coming. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) this month said that it intends to contract with American Centrifuge Operating LLC, subsidiary of Centrus Energy Corp., for the demonstration of high assay low enriched uranium production—the fuel source for advanced nuclear reactors.
The project entails deploying a 16 machine AC-100M HALEU cascade producing a 19.7 percent U-235 enriched product by October 2020, to be used for the Energy Department’s research and development of nuclear energy.
“The AC-100M enrichment technology is the only existing U.S.-origin uranium enrichment technology, and, further, has the potential to be deployed at a commercial-scale serving the broadest market need,” the agency stated.
The Energy Department’s $115 million investment to build the cascade of 16 centrifuges at the former American Centrifuge in Piketon, Ohio will create 60 jobs initially, said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
The demonstration program—known as the American Centrifuge Plant—operated at Piketon until it was disbanded in 2016 by the Obama administration, Portman said. In 2017 Energy Secretary Rick Perry committed to re-evaluating the Obama administration’s decision to end the domestic uranium enrichment demonstration program “because having domestic enrichment capabilities would provide stability and security to our country.”
A number of companies are developing smaller advanced nuclear reactors called “micro reactors” that require HALEU fuel, which is enriched to a 5 to 20 percent uranium-235 content, compared with the 3 to 5 percent U-235 used in existing commercial reactors, according to Utility Dive.
According to Utility Dive one of HALEU fuel's benefits is its refueling cycle, which can be as long as 10 year due to its higher energy concentration.
A micro reactor could possibly come online in the 2025–2027 time frame, with Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska as a prospective location for the first deployment, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
“From an industry perspective, it is very important to have a source of high assay HALEU fuel,” Everett Redmond II, senior technical advisor at NEI, told Utility Dive. “We don’t want reactors designed that need a fuel we don’t have.”