Uranium & Fuel

US / Centrus Begins Enrichment Operations As Washington Aims To End Russian Monopoly On Haleu For Advanced Reactors

By David Dalton
13 October 2023

Domestic source of production crucial for next-generation nuclear plants

Centrus Begins Enrichment Operations As Washington Aims To End Russian Monopoly On Haleu For Advanced Reactors
A centrifuge machine being installed at the Piketon, Ohio, facility. Courtesy Centrus.

Centrus Energy has begun enrichment operations at its American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio as it approaches production of nuclear fuel that will break an existing Russian monopoly and be crucial to the deployment and operation of a next generation of advanced reactors.

The Maryland, US-based nuclear fuel company said it expects to begin producing high-assay low-enriched uranium (Haleu) fuel later this month.

It said the American Centrifuge Plant is the only Haleu facility in the US licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the first new US-owned, US-technology uranium enrichment plant to begin production since 1954.

Centrus has said Haleu production is the first step towards converting southern Ohio into a hub that will strengthen the country’s nuclear supply chain and help the accelerated deployment of the nuclear energy “increasingly demanded domestically and abroad to meet global climate objectives”.

Haleu is an essential advanced nuclear fuel required for the development of most next-generation reactor designs. It is needed for 90% of advanced reactor designs selected for funding under the DOE’s advanced reactor demonstration programme.

Centrus president and chief executive officer Daniel Poneman said: “We hope that this demonstration cascade will soon be joined by thousands of additional centrifuges right here in Piketon to produce the Haleu needed to fuel the next generation of advanced reactors, low-enriched-uranium to sustain the existing fleet of reactors, and the enriched uranium needed to sustain our nuclear deterrent for generations to come.

“This is how the United States can recover its lost nuclear independence.”

Agreements In Place With Reactor Developers

Centrus began the construction of its centrifuges in 2019 as part of a contract with the US Department of Energy. Since then, the company had secured additional contracts to complete construction, fulfil regulatory requirements, begin operations, and produce Haleu.

The Piketon facility is allowed to enrich uranium up to 20% Uranium-235 (U-235) from levels between 3% and 5% in conventional reactor fuel.

In August, Centrus signed a memorandum of understanding with US-based Generation IV reactor developer Oklo to support the deployment of Oklo’s advanced fission nuclear power plants and advanced nuclear fuel production.

The companies plan to collaborate on a range of programmes supporting the development and operation of Oklo’s Aurora nuclear plants, including the supply of Haleu produced by Centrus at Piketon.

Centrus intends to buy energy from Oklo’s planned Ohio plants to power its Haleu production facility.

Centrus has also signed an agreement with TerraPower, the US-based nuclear reactor developer founded by Bill Gates, to significantly expand their collaboration aimed at establishing a Haleu supply for TerraPower’s first-of-a-kind Natrium reactor and energy storage system.

In December, TerraPower said a Natrium nuclear reactor proposed for the state of Wyoming could be delayed at least two years because of a lack of advanced fuel sources outside Russia.

TerraPower said Russia was the only commercial source of the more highly enriched Haleu the Natrium nuclear power plant requires, but sourcing from there was no longer an option.

The fact that Russia has a monopoly on Haleu has long been a concern for Washington. Only Tenex, which is part of Russian state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom, sells Haleu commercially at the moment.

Centrus’s American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio. Courtesy Centrus.

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