The United States and Russia are nuclear powers — for civilian use. Russia has long held dominance regarding highly enriched uranium fuels. But now this country is getting in the game: Centrus Energy announced that it has begun enrichment operations at its High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) facility in Piketon, Ohio.
It is the only Nuclear Regulatory Commission-licensed HALEU facility in the United States and the first new U.S.-owned, U.S.-technology uranium enrichment plant to begin production since 1954.
“This moment holds great pride — and promise — for the nation,” said Centrus President and CEO Daniel Poneman. “We hope that this demonstration cascade will soon be joined by thousands of additional centrifuges right here in Piketon to produce the HALEU needed to fuel the next generation of advanced reactors, Low-Enriched-Uranium to sustain the existing fleet of reactors, and the enriched uranium needed to sustain our nuclear deterrent for generations to come. This is how the United States can recover its lost nuclear independence.”
HALEU is an advanced nuclear fuel required for most of the next-generation reactor designs currently under development. The Piketon facility could add thousands of machines to meet the growing demand for enriched uranium in the decades to come.
Experts characterize nuclear fuels by their concentration of a specific uranium isotope, U-235. The reactors operating today in the United States require a fuel enrichment level of 3%-5% U-235, known as low-enriched uranium fuels.
Many advanced reactors under development will require higher fuel enrichment levels — from 5% to 20% U-235. That’s called HALEU.
The main challenge for advanced reactors that require HALEU fuel is that the material has yet to be commercially available in the United States. The only supplier is the Russian state-owned company TENEX — not desirable today. However, federal incentives could catalyze domestic production of the fuel and create an enduring value chain. Otherwise, Australia, Canada, and Kazakhstan also provide it.
New Day for Nuclear Energy — in Industrial Applications
At the same time, the cost of building those advanced nuclear reactors is challenging to quantify. More certainty will come after developers start designing plants and modeling expenses.
The chemical maker Dow will develop a small nuclear reactor for industrial applications, potentially replacing natural gas that is now burned at extremely high temperatures to change chemical compounds. Advanced nuclear technologies, however, achieve the same result without releasing carbon emissions.
Specifically, Dow is partnering with X-energy to develop a small modular reactor at one of Dow’s sites along the Gulf Coast, which could go live in 2030.
“Electricity is the low-hanging fruit,” says Patrick White, project manager for the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, in a talk with this writer. “We have not yet integrated nuclear energy with large chemical facilities. There may be some hiccups and things to work through. But we will see the first reactors for industrial applications at the end of the decade. After building the fourth and fifth reactors, companies will sign up in droves. The goal is decarbonization.”
The so-called Generation IV high-temperature reactors are best known for electricity generation. But they can also be used by industry. Because they operate at 800 degrees Celsius, they can process chemicals, desalinate ocean water, and produce clean hydrogen for electricity and transportation.
Most advanced reactors require HALEU, which gives developers an edge regarding increased efficiencies. That is, higher enrichment levels provide more nuclear fission and thus create more energy.
As for Centrus, it met every required milestone on time and within budget during the construction of its highly enriched nuclear plant. If the United States uses more nuclear energy to meet its decarbonization goals, this facility will give those in Russia a run for its money.
“It’s remarkable what we can accomplish in the truly American public, private partnership model. For the first time ever, an American company is producing HALEU on American soil, providing critical fuel for advanced nuclear reactors, a statement that America’s committed to our energy security,” Deputy Energy Secretary David Turk said.