The Department of Energy (DOE) has issued a request for proposals (RFP) for uranium enrichment services to help establish a reliable domestic supply of fuels using high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU). Currently, HALEU is not commercially available from US-based suppliers, and boosting domestic supply is seen as vital for the development and deployment of advanced reactors in the US.

“Nuclear energy currently provides almost half of the nation’s carbon-free power, and it will continue to play a significant part in transitioning to a clean energy future,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M Granholm. “President Biden’s Investing in America is strengthening our national and energy security through the domestic buildup of a robust HALEU supply chain, helping bring advanced reactors online in time to combat the climate crisis.”

The US Administration knows that nuclear energy is essential to accelerating a clean energy future, said Assistant to the President and National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi. “The path to greater energy security and more climate solutions runs through investments like these, being made at historic scale.”

In total, the Inflation Reduction Act will provide up to $500m for HALEU enrichment contracts selected through this RFP and a separate one, released in November, for services to deconvert the uranium enriched through this RFP into metal, oxide, and other forms to be used as fuel for advanced reactors.

DOE said advanced nuclear power designs using HALEU fuels represent a critical set of technologies that can help to reach US emissions targets and contribute to America’s recent pledge with 21 other countries to triple nuclear power globally by 2050.

The existing US reactor fleet uses uranium fuel enriched up to 5% with uranium-235. However, most US advanced reactor designs require HALEU, enriched to between 5% to 20%. HALEU will also allow developers to optimise their systems for longer life cores, increased efficiencies and better fuel utilisation.

DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy plans to award one or more contracts to produce HALEU from domestic uranium enrichment capabilities. Once enriched, the HALEU material will be stored on site until there is a need to ship it to deconverters.

Under the HALEU enrichment contracts, which have a maximum duration of 10 years, the government assures each contractor a minimum order value of $2m, to be fulfilled over the term of the contract. Enrichment and storage activities must occur in the continental US and comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. Proposals are due by 8 March.

DOE is supporting several activities to expand the HALEU supply chain for advanced commercial reactors, including recycling used fuel from government-owned research reactors. In November, DOE reached a key milestone under its HALEU Demonstration project when Centrus Energy Corp produced first 20 kilograms of HALEU, providing a first of its kind production in the United States in more than 70 years.

DOE is pursuing several pathways to secure a domestic supply of HALEU. The HALEU Availability Program will acquire HALEU through purchase agreements with domestic industry partners and produce limited initial amounts of material from DOE-owned assets. This is intended to spur demand for additional HALEU production and private investment in the nation’s nuclear fuel supply infrastructure – ultimately removing the federal government’s initial role as a supplier.

DOE said it is also working with like-minded countries to catalyse public and private sector investments that will expand global uranium enrichment and conversion capacity over the next three years and establish a resilient uranium supply market “that is free from Russian influence”. Together, the United States, Canada, France, Japan, and the UK have announced collective plans to mobilise $4.2bn in government-led spending to develop safe and secure nuclear energy supply chains.

DOE’s announcement comes shortly after the UK said it aimed to be the first European country to launch a HALEU programme with a £300m ($381m) investment. The only company currently selling commercial shipments of HALEU is TENEX, part of Russia's state-owned energy company Rosatom.

Image: HALEU reguli fabricated from downblended high-enriched uranium recovered from legacy EBR-II fuel at Idaho National Laboratory (courtesy of USDOE)