Centrus said that while the letter is non-binding and non-exclusive, it reflects the parties’ long-term commitment to enter into a purchase agreement that would enable Centrus to supply the commercial Haleu fuel that ARC needs to deploy the ARC-100 reactor technology in the late 2020s.
The US-based company said Haleu fuel could power both existing and next-generation nuclear reactors, including the ARC-100. According to Maryland-based ARC, the plant’s inherent safety features and passive decay heat removal capabilities, combined with the improved power density of Haleu fuel, allow for a smaller, simpler, less-capital intensive reactor design. Unlike existing light-water reactors, which must be refuelled with low-enriched uranium (LEU) every 18 to 24 months, the Haleu core of the ARC-100 will allow the reactor to operate at full power for 20 years without refuelling.
A report from the White House nuclear fuel working group released last week identified establishing a domestic Haleu fuel production capability as a key priority in restoring the US’s competitive advantage in nuclear energy.
To this end, Centrus has been working since 2019 under a three-year, $115m cost-shared contract with the US Department of Energy to deploy 16 of its AC-100M centrifuges to demonstrate production of Haleu fuel with US technology in Ohio.
The demonstration programme is scheduled o run until 2022, at which point Centrus expects to have a fully licensed, operable Haleu fuel production capability at a small scale that could be expanded to meet commercial and government requirements for Haleu fuel.
ARC expects to deploy its ARC-100 reactors starting in late 2028, with the first fuel needed by 2027.
Centus said that despite its many advantages as a nuclear fuel, Haleu fuel is not commercially available today, nor are any Haleu-fuelled reactors in commercial operation.
The lack of available Haleu fuel constrains the deployment of advanced reactors and advanced fuels. The lack of advanced reactors also limits the development of advanced fuels. This is the “chicken and egg” dilemma that must be resolved for the US to establish itself as the global leader in building and fuelling the next generation of reactors around the world, which is critical to US influence on nonproliferation.
“Many of the foreign reactor developers that compete against US companies may not face the same dilemma because they are backed by large, state-owned uranium enrichment enterprises,” Centrus said.
What Is Haleu Fuel?
When uranium ore is extracted from the earth, the concentration of the fissile isotope Uranium-235 is less than one percent. Most existing commercial reactors in the US and worldwide operate on LEU fuel that has been enriched to increase the concentration of the U-235 isotope to slightly less than 5%. High assay, low-enriched uranium is further enriched so that the U-235 concentration is between 5% and 20%. While this is still far below the levels needed to produce weapons or power US Navy vessels, Haleu fuel offers unique advantages for both existing and next generation reactors, including greater power density, improved reactor performance, fewer refuelling outages, improved proliferation resistance, and smaller volumes of waste.