New Realities for Uranium Enrichment: Waste & Recycling
April 29, 2022
Society – and the nuclear industry – are today confronted with a new reality: that of questioning energy security and energy independence. John-Paul Jones, head of business and market intelligence at Urenco, told Global Nuclear Fuel Cycle 2022.
John-Paul Jones speaking at WNFC 2022
The upstream of the nuclear fuel cycle market has rebalanced since 2011, he said. Supply was well below annual requirements, particularly in uranium mining and conversion. This gap was filled by drawing down world stocks, via the enrichment sector, which was in overproduction.
Operational uranium assets – unlike uranium mines – cannot easily be brought into service and maintenance condition in response to market imbalances. “You don’t just turn them off – they just run,” he said. “So what we’re doing instead is changing our operations to better match demand with our assets and our supply.”
Natural uranium contains 0.7% of the U-235 isotope – the remainder comprising mostly the heavier U-238 isotope. Light water reactors – pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors – use uranium enriched to 3-5% in 235U in their fuel. This is achieved commercially by passing uranium gas – uranium hexafluoride, UF6 – through centrifuges to enrich the level of fissile U-235. The process also produces a material stream – or “tails” – which is depleted in U-235.
When enrichment supply exceeds demand, enrichers will turn to a process known as starvation: operating enrichment plants at a lower operational tailings dosage so that less raw uranium feed is needed to get the same amount of enriched output. This makes it possible to fix part of the natural uranium.
“We are effectively rescuing UF6,” Jones said. “So are the enrichers just ignoring market signals? Are they feeling the pain? The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘yes’.”
Looking back over the past 10 years, enrichment projects have been delayed and cancelled, Jones said: a new enrichment project, at Eagle Rock in the United States, was cancelled; the bankruptcy of USEC, with prices cited as too low; and delays in the GLE laser enrichment project. “Urenco ourselves stopped and scaled back our expansion. We went through the same pains as some of the utilities…. We had to downsize, cut costs and write off billions of dollars in assets – there is pain . “
Other enrichers pursued different strategies, he said. Chinese enrichers serve a growing domestic market and their goal is to grow with their demand base. Russia – which is “by far” the largest enricher in the world – has maintained its very high enrichment capacity over the past decade.
Looking at the primary enrichment market as a whole, there are clear supply and demand imbalances on a regional basis, Jones said. “So if the issue is energy independence, how do you fill those gaps?”
The answer, he said, lies in both short-term and long-term approaches. Short-term disruptions can be resolved by reducing strategic inventory across the industry and re-optimizing operations to fully utilize enrichment capacity. “Enrichers can stop undernourishment – but you really have to think about it,” he said. “It sounds trivial – but the front-end fuel cycle is a highly integrated system. Where will the pinch points be?” Conversion would then become a bottleneck if such a strategy were pursued, he said.
In the longer term, enhancers can create new capabilities. “But it’s not an overnight strategy – it’s going to take time. And like the rest of the fuel cycle, sustaining that investment is going to take long-term commitments,” he said. . “We need to increase our production of centrifuges, we need to invest in labor, we need storage, we need deconversion facilities, transportation… there’s a lot to think about.”
To ensure security of supply, we also need to think about the evolution of the fuel cycle, Jones said. This next generation of nuclear fuels will include LEU+ for existing reactors – fuel enriched to more than 5% in 235U, and high-dose low-enriched uranium – HALEU – for next-generation reactors. Production of enriched uranium at these levels will require dedicated, duly licensed facilities. “I can confirm today that we (Urenco) are thinking about it, and we have our preferred sites – one in the UK and one in the US.”
“We are all on the path to a zero-emissions society. We all agree that it needs nuclear energy – the only proven and safe low-carbon technology for generating electricity, and – if it is well configured – an energy source that can provide security of supply and energy independence.
Research and writing by World Nuclear News