Framatome North America and US-based TerraPower have agreed to design and develop a high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) metallisation pilot line at Framatome’s nuclear fuel manufacturing facility in Richland, Washington. The HALEU pilot line, which is currently under construction, will prove the viability of Framatome’s technology for metallisation to support the development of the advanced reactor market.

The USA’s current commercial nuclear fuel cycle is based on low-enriched uranium enriched to less than 5%. HALEU, enriched to between 5% and 20% is required by many of the advanced reactor technologies that are currently under development. As yet no US domestic commercial source of HALEU available although Centrus is developing a HALEU production facility supported by the Department of Energy (DOE).

DOE is pursuing various pathways to produce HALEU through its HALEU Availability Program (HAP), authorised by the Energy Act of 2020. The Inflation Reduction Act signed into law in 2022 included $700m to support HALEU development. Framatome has applied for DOE funding under the HAP Deconversion and Metallisation Request for Proposals. Successful completion and operation of the HALEU pilot plant will support Framatome’s efforts to expand the US fuel supply chain capabilities.

Metallisation of HALEU is a crucial part of the HALEU fuel cycle. After enrichment, HALEU uranium hexafluoride must be “deconverted” to a form suitable for fuel fabrication. These include oxides, metal and alloys, nitrides and carbides. While this is traditionally done in fuel fabrication facilities, deconversion of HALEU enriched to more than 10% has to take place in a physical security Category II facility.

“A strong domestic fuel supply chain is crucial for the wide-scale deployment of advanced nuclear energy solutions; an energy source we know is needed to meet clean energy targets and provide reliable, baseload energy,” said Chris Levesque, TerraPower President & CEO. “This investment by TerraPower into Framatome’s pilot line is a critical step in bringing advanced reactors like the Natrium technology to market. It is also one more way that TerraPower is delivering on its promise to do our part to support the fuel manufacturing sector.”

Natrium is a TerraPower and GE-Hitachi technology and is one of two competitively-selected Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) projects supported by DOE. The Natrium technology features a 345 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system. In November 2021, TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, announced an ageing coal plant owned by US PacifiCorp, in Kemmerer, Wyoming, as the preferred site for its Natrium reactor demonstration project.

“This agreement advances fuel technologies for the nuclear energy industry and working pragmatically with TerraPower builds the trust and confidence our customers count on,” said Ala Alzaben, Senior Vice President for North America Fuel at Framatome. “TerraPower is at the forefront of the next generation of advanced reactors and by utilizing our expertise and flexible manufacturing infrastructure, we can ensure new clean nuclear projects are not waiting on the supply chain of nuclear fuels.”