The US Department of Energy (DOE) on 14 December issued a Request for Information (RFI) regarding planning for establishment of a programme to support the availability of High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use.

Written comments and information are requested on or before 13 January 2022. DOE said it was inviting input on the planning for establishment of a DOE HALEU Availability Programme and to gather information to consider in preparing the required report to Congress describing actions proposed to be carried out by DOE under that programme. The Energy Act of 2020 authorised DOE to establish and carry out such a programme through the Office of Nuclear Energy.

DOE said it “is working to enable the development and deployment of advanced nuclear reactors as part of meeting the Administration's job creation, energy security and climate goals”. DOE's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) was established to partner with domestic private industry to help accelerate the development and demonstration of advanced nuclear reactors in the USA. Most advanced reactors, including several designs selected for the ARDP, are designed to be fuelled by HALEU. “A HALEU Availability Program, leading to the deployment and commercialisation of clean energy technologies and infrastructure, could secure a critical domestic supply chain for meeting the Administration's climate, economic, and energy security goals.”  

Currently, there is very limited domestic capacity to provide HALEU from either DOE or commercial sources.“This lack of capacity is a significant obstacle to the development and deployment of advanced reactors for commercial applications,” DOE said.

Specifically, DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) provides highly enriched uranium (HEU), HALEU, and Low Enriched Uranium for its defence and non-proliferation missions. “Most of NNSA's HEU is reserved for the Naval Reactors program and for use in the nuclear weapons stockpile, and is therefore unavailable for down-blending to use in advanced reactors used for commercial applications. Other HEU in the inventory is allocated to supply research reactors and medical isotope production facilities worldwide, and to meet critical defense and space requirements. After accounting for these requirements on the inventory, the remaining amount of HEU to be down-blended to HALEU for advanced commercial reactors is very limited. If these supplies were redirected to fuel advanced commercial reactors, they would not be sufficient to meet the projected near-term demands for advanced reactor demonstration and deployment.” 

DOE added that, on the commercial side, there is no domestic assured source of HALEU to be used to produce fuel for advanced reactors in sufficient quantities to meet anticipated demand. “In turn, uncertainty regarding the commercial deployment of advanced reactors and future demand for HALEU undermines private investment to develop an assured HALEU supply capability and related infrastructure.”

The HALEU Availability Program envisioned in the Energy Act of 2020 is intended to address this problem by temporarily securing a supply of HALEU to support research, development, demonstration, and equitable deployment of advanced reactors for commercial applications. “This action, in turn, could spur demand for additional HALEU production and private investment in nuclear fuel supply infrastructure and ultimately remove the government from any role as a supplier of HALEU for industry. The development of a viable domestic commercial supply of HALEU for advanced commercial power reactors could also supply the needs of medical isotope producers and civilian research reactors.” The programme outlined in   the Energy Act would sunset on 30 September 2034, or 90 days after adequate supply is established.

The RFI includes specific questions on which DOE “would appreciate input”. These questions included:

  • What types of organisations or other entities should be included in a HALEU Consortium. 
  • Identifying any issues, including energy justice concerns, that may affect the implementation of the HALEU Availability Program.
  • What are the most significant barriers to the establishment of a reliable market-driven, commercial supply of HALEU for advanced reactor research, demonstration, and commercial deployment? 
  • If DOE were to create a fuel bank to supply HALEU for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use, what is the quantity of HALEU necessary for domestic commercial use for each of the next five years (2022-2026) and how large a stockpile would be needed?
  • What other specific actions would provide confidence in the short-term supply of HALEU and ensure the development of a commercial market for advanced reactor orders?
  • What level of market demand for HALEU over what timeframe is needed to stimulate investment in the infrastructure required to support a HALEU supply chain?
  • On what basis should HALEU be priced or valued? 
  • What additional fuel cycle infrastructure, or additions or modifications to existing infrastructure, would enable the deployment of commercial HALEU production and assure the availability of different forms of HALEU in sufficient quantities for use in advanced reactors?
  • How would a HALEU supply chain be responsive to the President's Justice40 Initiative—a plan to deliver 40% of the overall benefits of climate investments to disadvantaged communities and inform equitable research, development, and deployment within DOE? 
  • What are some approaches or contracting vehicles that could be used by DOE to help enable the necessary commercial deployment of a domestic HALEU supply chain?
  • What specific technological, regulatory, and/or legal gaps or challenges currently exist for transporting HALEU in various chemical forms and how do these challenges change depending upon the enrichment level? What actions could be taken, when, and by whom, to address the identified gaps or challenges?
  •  What actions, either federal or non-federal, might help incentivise the development and delivery of a new or modified 30-inch cylinder for transportation?
  • Co-location of facilities for the front end of the fuel cycle (such as enrichment, and conversion/deconversion, and fabrication) may be a practicable solution to address some HALEU transportation issues. Are there other solutions that should be considered?
  • What factors affect the ability of US uranium producers to provide uranium for advanced reactor fuel? 
  • What are the technical barriers and/or regulatory requirements to licensing front-end fuel cycle facilities for the production and availability of HALEU?
  • What, if any, additional criticality and/or benchmark data is needed to meet US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) safety and regulatory requirements that must be met in order to establish a supply chain capable of making HALEU available for the development and deployment of advanced reactors? 
  • What, if any, additional challenges or considerations may be associated with a HALEU lifecycle?
  • What other legal, funding, and other issues should be addressed to best enable the development of a HALEU availability programme and promote private sector deployment of domestic HALEU production capacity?
  • What are the financial challenges associated with developing a sustainable commercial fuel supply chain for HALEU. 
  • What are the human resource-related considerations related to the buildout of commercial HALEU production? Are there specific recruitment and/or training challenges that must be overcome?