The White House Has Big Plans for U.S. Uranium Production

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Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions on Russian energy, the U.S. has increased its oil and gas production, as well as strengthened supply chains to overcome the shortage of other energy products. However, it still relies heavily on Russia for the uranium it needs to power modern nuclear reactors. Now, the Biden administration has big plans for the domestic production of High-Assay, Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU). If successful, the HALEU output could help the U.S. develop its nuclear energy capacity to support a green transition and boost energy security. 

Why Is HALEU So Important?

HALEU is enriched to levels of up to 20%, compared to the current other form of uranium powering U.S. plants that is enriched to 5%. HALEU is needed to power modern, advanced nuclear reactors. However, TENEX, part of the Russian state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom, is the only company to sell HALEU commercially. While the U.S. and EU sanctions on Russian energy do not extend to Rosatom, due to the dependence of the global nuclear industry on the company, several companies in the U.S. have paused nuclear developments for fear they could become overly reliant on Russia. 

The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) has established the HALEU Consortium to secure a domestic supply of the uranium. At present, there is very little public or private capacity to produce HALEU in the U.S., restricting the country’s ability to deploy advanced nuclear reactors and deterring private investment in the sector due to the unstable investment environment. In response to the sanctions on Russian energy and fears of remaining overly reliant on a Russian supply chain, the U.S. is looking to develop its domestic HALEU production. 

Domestic Production 

Several nuclear projects have been put on hold over the last two years for fear that there will not be non-Russian HALEU available to power advanced reactors. This is concerning as the Biden administration views the development of the country’s nuclear capacity as key to achieving its climate pledges. However, in January, the DoE stated it was seeking bids from contractors to establish domestic HALEU production to use in new reactors. The DoE is hoping to attract contracts for a maximum of 10 years from enrichment service companies. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provided around $500 million in funding for HALEU production. The development of a HALEU industry could help the U.S. overcome barriers to the launch of new nuclear projects that could support a green transition. 

The only U.S. company currently holding a HALEU production license is Centrus Energy. The firm is currently supplying the DoE with a small amount of the uranium for demonstration processes. Lindsey Geisler, a Centrus spokesperson, said the company “looks forward to the opportunity to compete for the funding necessary to expand our production.” The European uranium enrichment company Urenco could also be responsible for HALEU production in the U.S., but it does not yet have a license. Nuclear proliferation experts are concerned that greater reliance on HALEU worldwide could heighten proliferation risks, as the fuel is more similar to the fissile material used in nuclear weapons than traditional uranium. Therefore, licensing and industry regulation should not be taken lightly. 

Reinvigorating U.S. Nuclear Power 

The Biden administration has repeatedly stated the importance of U.S. nuclear power, seeing it as key to achieving a green transition. In January, the government finalized a $1.1 billion aid package to keep California’s last nuclear power plant running, as the sector faced financial difficulties. In recent decades, support for nuclear power has dwindled following several infamous nuclear disasters. However, as we look to shift away from fossil fuels to greener alternatives, there has been a resurgence in interest in nuclear power. In addition, nuclear power has been proven to be safer than many other types of energy production, as it does not produce carbon emissions and is managed by strict safety regulations. 

In 2022, TerraPower, a nuclear power company backed by Bill Gates, stated its advanced reactor demonstration would face delays of at least two years due to the lack of availability of non-Russian HALEU. It was originally hoping to complete the development of its first reactor in Wyoming by 2028. Chris Levesque, the CEO of TerraPower, stated “In February 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused the only commercial source of HALEU fuel to no longer be a viable part of the supply chain for TerraPower, as well as for others in our industry… Given the lack of fuel availability now, and that there has been no construction started on new fuel enrichment facilities, TerraPower is anticipating a minimum of a two-year delay to being able to bring the Natrium reactor into operation.” However, at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, TerraPower and the UAE’s state-owned nuclear company ENEC signed a memorandum of understanding to study the potential development of advanced reactors in the UAE and abroad. This suggests optimism around the potential for HALEU production outside of Russia and the development of advanced nuclear reactors around the globe.

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Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specializing in Energy and Industry. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK, and is now based in Mexico City.

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