US nuclear regulator approves fuel for next-generation reactors
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The US nuclear regulator has approved the production of uranium fuel much more enriched than fuel for conventional nuclear power plants, the company aiming to manufacture the material said on Monday.
The fuel is known as Highly Titrated Low Enriched Uranium, or HALEU. Non-proliferation experts are concerned about fuel because it is easier to convert into fissile material, the key component of nuclear weapons, than conventional reactor fuel.
Centrus Energy Corp said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, has approved the company’s request to produce HALEU at a plant in Piketon, Ohio, and that it plans to demonstrate fuel production in early 2022.
“This approval is an important step in our contract with the Department of Energy,” said Daniel Poneman, President and CEO of Centrus.
Under a 2019 contract with the energy department, Centrus is building AC100M centrifuges to demonstrate HALEU production. The $ 115 million cost-shared contract runs until mid-2022.
Centrus said that HALEU offers benefits for existing and next-generation reactors, including “higher power density, improved reactor performance, fewer refueling stoppages, better proliferation resistance and smaller volumes. of waste”.
The fuel can be enriched from 5 to 20% uranium 235. This is less than the enrichment level of about 90% used in a nuclear weapon, but it is much higher than the fuel used in nuclear reactors. conventional, which is enriched by about 3 to 5%.
Non-proliferation experts have expressed concern over the signal the approval sends to other countries, not least because Washington is trying to stop Iran from enriching 20 percent uranium.
“I am concerned about the potential development of advanced reactors and fuel cycles that will require large amounts of HALEU without a full assessment of the consequences for nuclear proliferation and terrorism,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety. nuclear power at the Union of Concerned Scientists. .
A spokesperson for Centrus said that the United States “has always demanded that the highest standards of safety, security and non-proliferation be met for any nation that purchases our fuel, which is why it is so important that America does not cede this market to others ”.
NRC spokesperson David McIntyre said the agency had made no comment.
Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Leslie Adler