US-based Centrus Energy Corp on 23 March provided an update on construction of the USA’s first production facility for High-Assay, Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) in Piketon, Ohio, saying it hoped to begin production next year. “Despite the impact of the pandemic and the extraordinary steps we have taken to protect our workforce – including limiting the number of people who can be on the construction site at any one time – we have kept construction on track and expect to begin producing HALEU by next year,” said Centrus President and CEO Daniel B Poneman. “We believe this first-of-a-kind facility can play a critical role in meeting both government and commercial requirements for HALEU, powering America’s nuclear leadership as the world turns to a new generation of advanced reactors and advanced nuclear fuels.”

xUnder a 2019 contract with the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Nuclear Energy, Centrus is licensing and constructing a cascade of 16 AC100M centrifuges – a US technology – to demonstrate production of HALEU. DOE said the objective was to demonstrate a domestic technology so that it “could be used in any type of advanced reactors, including defence reactors that require the use of HALEU produced using US- origin technology”. The three year, $115 million, cost-shared contract runs until mid-2022.

HALEU is an advanced nuclear fuel material that is not commercially yet available in the USA, but may be required in the future to fuel both existing and next generation reactors. For example, nine of the 10 reactor designs selected by DOE for its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Programme are expected to operate on HALEU, which offers advantages in reactor performance and reduced waste production. HALEU is enriched so that the concentration of the U-235 isotope is higher than the 4-5% typically used in current reactors but below 20%.

Centrus submitted a licence amendment request (LAR) to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2020 to enable it to enrich uranium up to 20% U-235. NRC accepted the LAR for and a technical review is under way. The facility has an NRC licence for enrichment up to 10%, and if the amendment is approved, it will become the first US facility licensed for the full range of low enriched uranium and HALEU. Centrus recently completed assembly of all AC100M gas centrifuges, which will undergo final preparations before being installed into the production cascade. Design and engineering work on the non-centrifuge or “balance of plant” systems is near completion and system construction is under way. Auxiliary and support systems necessary for operation are being installed. Following NRC licence amendment approval and completion of the NRC’s Operational Readiness Review, Centrus expects to begin HALEU production by early 2022.

Centrus said it has completed all required HALEU Demonstration Programme milestones to date and expects to complete the remaining milestones for programme completion no later than June 2022.

To support the construction effort, Centrus has reactivated its domestic supply chain for centrifuge components and supporting equipment needed for the demonstration, and restored its capacity to manufacture centrifuge parts in its Oak Ridge, Tennessee, manufacturing facility. Subject to the availability of funding and/or offtake contracts, Centrus said it can build additional centrifuges and support equipment to expand production in a modular fashion to meet whatever level of production is required for commercial and/or US government purposes.