Sen. John Barrasso on Thursday introduced another bill intended to speed expansion of the US uranium supply chain, this time targeting the fuel used in advanced nuclear reactors like the one proposed for Wyoming.
High-assay, low-enriched uranium, or HALEU, is more highly enriched — meaning it contains a higher concentration of fissile isotope uranium-235 — than the fuel used in the nuclear reactors operating in the US today.
The US imports most of its nuclear fuel and has limited enrichment capacity, even for the type of fuel used in existing reactors. It has no enrichment capacity for HALEU.
Russia is currently the only commercial source of HALEU. And with six years left for advanced nuclear developers TerraPower and NuScale Power to meet their congressionally mandated operating deadline, US policymakers backing the federal Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program are scrambling to find another supplier.
The US gets nearly half of its nuclear fuel from Russia and its neighbors. Sens. Barrasso and Lummis want to put that production back in Wyoming’s hands.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, TerraPower, the company planning to build its demonstration plant on the site of the Naughton Power Plant in Kemmerer, viewed the reactors’ likely dependence on Russia as an unavoidable vulnerability. It hoped new US enrichment capability would emerge quickly following success of the reactor technology.
TerraPower has since said it will not use Russian fuel in its Wyoming reactor.
Fuel for Wyoming’s nuclear plant will likely come either from “domestic or Western enrichment capability that currently doesn’t exist that gets stood up,” or from “down-blending existing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium, which we have for national security purposes,” Jeff Navin, director of external affairs for TerraPower, told the Star-Tribune last month.
Because the country’s earliest advanced reactors are at least several years away, private companies are hesitant to invest in a supply chain for a fuel not yet in use.
“Domestic HALEU enrichment,” Barrasso’s bill reads, “will not be commercially available at the scale needed in time to meet the needs of advanced nuclear reactor demonstration projects.”
The bill, dubbed the Fueling Our Nuclear Future Act, would require the US Department of Energy to commercialize the country’s HALEU production by helping private companies develop enrichment capacity, preferably before the TerraPower and NuScale demonstration projects are complete.
The NO RUSSIA Act would require the Department of Energy to “immediately begin executing” development of the uranium reserve, for which the agency has already been allocated $75 million.
Until US companies can supply HALEU to the country’s advanced reactors, the bill would also direct the Department of Energy to make the fuel using federally stockpiled uranium, as TerraPower hopes it will.
“America is developing the world’s most advanced nuclear reactors,” Barrasso, a Republican, said in a statement. “The Department of Energy must take steps to ensure these reactors have an alternative to Russian uranium.”