US Centrus completes operational readiness review for HALEU production

20 June 2023

US-based Centrus Energy has completed its operational readiness reviews with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and received approval to introduce uranium into the cascade of centrifuges at its Piketon, Ohio site. This is a step towards a first-of-a-kind production of High-Assay, Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU), which is scheduled to begin by the end of 2023.

Centrus began construction of a cascade of centrifuges in 2019 under contract with the US Department of Energy (DOE) and in 2022, secured a competitively-awarded follow-on contract to finish construction and bring the cascade into operation. The operational readiness reviews were required under Centrus’s NRC licence, which was amended in 2021 to make the Piketon site the only NRC-licensed HALEU production facility.

Construction of the cascade and most of the support systems is now complete, and Centrus has also finished initial testing of these systems. The next steps are to complete construction of the on-site HALEU storage area and conduct final testing activities prior to operation, with initial HALEU production set to begin by the end of the year.

According to Centrus President & CEO Daniel B Poneman, Centrus continues to meet every contract milestone on time and on budget, “putting us in position to pioneer US HALEU production to meet the needs of the Department [of Energy] and the nuclear industry”. He added: “By establishing a secure, reliable American source of HALEU, we can help enable the commercialisation of a whole new generation of US-designed advanced nuclear reactors to supply the carbon-free energy the world needs.”

“We are proud to be one step closer to starting up what will be the first new, US-owned enrichment plant to begin production in 70 years,” said Centrus Senior Vice President for Field Operations Larry Cutlip. “Our talented workforce has executed beautifully in building the cascade, securing a HALEU licence, and putting us in position to become the first commercial HALEU producer.”

HALEU fuel contains uranium enriched to between 5% and 20% uranium-235. This is higher than the uranium fuel used in light-water reactors. HALEU will be required for most of the next-generation reactor designs currently under development but currently the US does not have a domestic supply and depends on imports, mostly from Russia. Nine of the ten designs selected for funding under DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, including the two demonstration reactors, will rely on HALEU, as will the first non-light water reactor to enter licensing review by the NRC.

Separate from the operations contract, Centrus is investigating the possibility of scaling up the Piketon facility with additional centrifuge cascades to increase production. However, this depends on sufficient funding or offtake contracts being secured. Centrus says a full-scale HALEU cascade, consisting of 120 individual centrifuge machines, with a combined capacity of approximately 6,000 kilograms of HALEU a year (6 MTU/year), could be brought online within about 42 months of securing the required funding. An additional cascade could then be added every six months after that.

Image: Cascade of centrifuges that will be used to produce enriched uranium at Centrus Energy's site in Piketon, Ohio (courtesy of Centrus Energy)

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