No clear direction for the US fuel cycle industry

30 September 2015

The US fuel cycle industry is in flux, and the future remains unclear. Uncertainty was the main theme at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 10th Fuel Cycle Information Exchange (FCIX), Thecla Fabian reports.

The NRC consolidated almost all its activities, except those dealing with new and operating reactors, under a restructured Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards (NMSS) in October 2014. Under director Catherine Haney the new NMSS covers both ends of the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear materials, decommissioning, uranium recovery and waste, and state and tribal programmes.

Industry and NRC representatives made clear at FCIX (held 9-10 June 2015 at NRC's Rockville, Maryland, headquarters) that the US nuclear fuel industry is in a serious slump and will not recover for at least 5-10 years. The federal government is struggling to find a path on spent fuel.

US uranium production continues to drop, due to depressed demand and low uranium prices, and plans for new production are on indefinite hold. At the same time, record high inventories have put storage space at a premium at the single US gas centrifuge enrichment plant, the single US conversion plant, and the three US fuel fabricators. Stockpiles include inventory from the suppliers, US and international customers, and traders. US nuclear operating companies also hold record high fuel inventories of more than twice their annual requirements.

In 2014, the US produced 4.9 million pounds of U3O8 from eight facilities, most of them in-situ recovery (ISR) plants in Nebraska, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. Several additional facilities are partially or fully permitted and licensed but not producing. Well field development is on hold at several ISR facilities, as is production at the USA's only operating conventional mill.

Almost all market analysts predict that 2015 uranium production will be below 2014 levels, and it might be 2020 or later before US production recovers. Operating plants in the US are expected to obtain less than 15% of their annual uranium requirements from US production, noted Eileen Supko, principal at Energy Resources International Inc, and US operators are expected to continue to import 85-90% of their uranium to at least 2020.

US demand for conversion services is currently around 18 million kgU/year and demand for enrichment stands at 15 million SWU/year. US nuclear operators will continue to import significant quantities of UF6, or UF6 contained in enriched uranium, from Canada, Europe, Russia and China. Meanwhile, the USA will continue to export natural UF6 feed to enrichers in Europe, and possibly Russia and China. It will also export enriched uranium overseas.

Fuel fabrication

Three fuel fabrication facilities currently operate in the USA: Areva's Richland, Washington, plant (PWR and BWR fuel); Global Nuclear Fuels-America in Wilmington, North Carolina (BWR fuel); and Toshiba Westinghouse's Columbia, South Carolina plant (PWR and BWR fuel). All three are expected to seek NRC approval for new design features to address reliability and cost issues.

Two new players are poised to enter the US fabrication market: US-based Lightbridge Corporation and Russian fuel corporation TVEL. Lightbridge is developing lead test assemblies for advanced metallic fuel rods. TVEL is testing a new 17x17 PWR fuel assembly, TVS- Kvadrat, with LTAs in a Swedish PWR, and has expressed interest in the US PWR fuel market.

Earlier this year, NRC issued Generic Letter 2015-01: Treatment of Natural Phenomena Hazards in Fuel Cycle Facilities, which placed new regulatory burdens and costs on US fuel fabrication facilities. NRC also oversees the shipment of UO2 powder, UO2 pellets, and fabricated fuel to facilities in Europe and Asia.

Back end issues

By 2020, the US spent fuel inventory is expected to reach 87,000t, with 36,000t in 3000 dry store casks. Almost every US plant has dry storage in place - a total of 72-75 independent spent fuel storage installations (ISFSIs), including the US Department of Energy's at Idaho National Environmental Laboratory (INEL).

Currently, 59 ISFSIs are storing used fuel under a general licence from NRC, and 15 are storing used fuel under site-specific licences. Four recently shutdown reactors plan to transfer used fuel from pool storage to dry storage by 2020, NRC said.

By 2020, NRC will be considering licence renewals for both ISFSIs and cask designs. Licensees are expected to apply for licence renewals for six ISFSIs: North Anna (operating), Ranco Seco (decommissioned); Trojan (decommissioned); two DOE ISFSIs at INEL, including one with solidified core waste from Three Mile Island 2; and a wet-pool ISFSI at GE Morris in Illinois that stores commercial used fuel.

NRC also will consider licence renewals for seven cask designs certified under US regulation: VSC-24 (EnergySolutions); Nuhoms (Areva); TN-32 & TN-68 (Transnuclear); HI- Star-100 & HI-Storm-100 (Holtec); and NAC MPC & NAC UMS (NAC International).

The US government currently has no active programme for permanent geologic disposal. The Obama Administration is ending plans to site a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The DOE now plans to dispose of vitrified high-level waste and used fuel from the nuclear weapons programme separately from commercial used fuel, instead of in a single repository.

The DOE will support a pilot facility for storing spent fuel from shutdown plants. Two companies have proposed sites in New Mexico and Texas for construction of central facilities. Both plan to submit licence applications to NRC in 2016 (see Is a path opening on US spent fuel management?).

NRC looks ahead

NRC is focusing its oversight of fuel cycle facilities on security, particularly cyber security, and the ability of these ageing facilities to withstand natural hazards. The task is made more difficult by the small fleet size, as well as internal changes at NRC, said commissioner Jeff Baran.

Baran said NRC already has enforceable, performance-based cyber security standards in place for reactors, and now is writing rules for fuel cycle facilities.

In the wake of Fukushima, preparing for natural hazards also has become a major concern. The NRC staff is confirming that facilities comply with regulatory requirements and evaluating how prepared licensees are to address hazards.

Commissioner William Ostendorff said focus in the new post-Fukushima NRC Generic Letter on Natural Phenomena Hazards, would be on wind, fire, flooding and earthquakes.

Another long-standing effort is an enhanced oversight process for fuel cycle facilities, modelled on the reactor oversight process but tailored to the fuel cycle fleet. Baran said he hoped to see a process that would be more transparent to both licensees and the public.

Internal changes at NRC also will affect how it oversees the fuel cycle fleet. Only a few years ago, NRC expected to expand its staff and resources to oversee new reactors and fuel cycle facilities. Now, the internal Project Aim 2020 is looking at a reduced NRC that will oversee only very limited new build, and the unanticipated decommissioning of at least five reactors.

The nuclear fuel cycle (Credit: NRC)

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