The US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) said on 23 June that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had approved Centrus Energy’s request to make high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel (HALEU) at its enrichment facility in Piketon, Ohio. The plant is now the only licensed HALEU production facility in the USA. 

DOE is currently supporting a three-year, $170 million cost-shared demonstration project with Centrus. The company has already built 16 advanced centrifuge machines for uranium enrichment and expects to begin HALEU production by early next year.

The amended licence allows the facility to produce HALEU by enriching uranium up to 20% of uranium-235. Current reactors typically use fuel enriched up to 5%. Under the DOE demo project, the company will provide up to 600 kilograms of HALEU by next June. The material will be used to support the testing and demonstration of new reactor designs.

“This demo project has consistently hit all of its milestones and is on track to make a huge impact for our nation,” said Andrew Griffith, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear fuel cycle and supply chain at NE. “It is helping us re-establish our domestic nuclear fuel supply chain, it has supported more than 200 US jobs, and is a positive step toward fuelling a new portfolio of reactors that can help us achieve our climate goals.”

DOE’s recent Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request includes a record $1.8 billion for NE placing a huge emphasis on scaling up the commercial deployment of smaller and more flexible advanced reactor designs. The FY22 request includes more than $500 million to help demonstrate and mature a variety of US advanced reactor designs. Many of them require HALEU fuel to optimise their systems for longer life cores, increased efficiencies and better fuel utilisation. 

HALEU-based fuel is not commercially available in the United States and DOE said it is pursuing three different options to support the testing and demonstration of advanced reactors, including this project. The NRC amended licence covers the length of the DOE contract and expires in 2022. If sufficient funding is available to continue operation, the licence can be amended again to extend the term. DOE said Centrus has met all required HALEU demo project milestones to date and is on track to complete the program no later than June 2022.