US efforts to help fight climate change by developing a new generation of small nuclear power plants have reportedly hit a potential snag: The only commercial supplier of the highly enriched fuel needed for the new reactors is based in Russia.
The Tenex unit of Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company, Rosatom, is the only firm that commercially markets high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU), the type of fuel that would be used by the advanced new reactors, Reuters reported on Thursday. “Production of HALEU is a critical mission, and all efforts to increase its production are being evaluated,” a US Department of Energy (DOE) spokesperson told the media outlet.
Russia’s HALEU monopoly has long been a concern in Washington, but the Ukraine crisis elevated the issue to an emergency because, as Reuters said, “neither the government nor the companies developing the new advanced reactors want to rely on Moscow.” As a result, President Joe Biden’s administration may tap America’s stockpile of weapons-grade uranium to fill the supply void.
The government is evaluating how much of its highly enriched uranium will be set aside for the new reactors. “We understand the need for urgent action to incentivize the establishment of a sustainable, market-driven supply of HALEU,” the DOE spokesperson said.
Washington sees the new reactors as a way to slash carbon emissions and accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels. The units are modular and are much more efficient than current nuclear plants. They’re also quicker to build. However, they require fuel that’s enriched to 20% U-235, about four times the level used in today’s nuclear power plants. Rosatom is the only commercial producer of such fuel and controls the licensing of its technology to Western enrichers.
When Russia began its military offensive against Ukraine in February, prompting the Biden administration to lead an international effort to isolate Russia through economic sanctions, relying on Rosatom became no longer viable. “We didn’t have a fuel problem until a few months ago,” Jeff Navin, director of external affairs at TerraPower, told Reuters. “After the invasion of Ukraine, we were not comfortable doing business with Russia.” Billionaire Bill Gates is the founder and chairman of TerraPower.
Biden announced a $14 million US grant in June to fund engineering and design work for a proposed nuclear power project in Romania that would replace a coal-fueled plant. The new plant would employ six next-generation modular reactors. “This will help bring online zero-emission nuclear energy to Europe faster, more cheaply and more efficiently,” the president said.
Reuters noted that, without a reliable source of HALEU, reactor developers fear they won’t receive orders for their new plants. And, without orders, potential suppliers of the highly enriched fuel likely won’t assemble the supply chains needed to replace the Russian producer.
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