US companies specialising in the construction of next-generation smaller nuclear power plants aimed at improving the country's energy security find it difficult to obtain fuel for those power plants.
There is only one company that sells such fuel, and unfortunately for them, the company is located in Russia, Reuters reports.
The energy crisis that broke out as a result of Russia's special operation in Ukraine and ensuing Western sanctions pushed Washington to develop nuclear industry faster. The USA already has designs for new modern reactors known as Small Modular Reactors. They are more efficient, faster and cheaper to build. However, they require highly enriched uranium to be able to operate. It goes about 20 percent uranium (HALEU) instead of the usual 5 percent that is commonly used for most large nuclear power plants.
It just so happens that there is only one company that offers commercial sales of HALEU uranium. This is TENEX Company (Techsnabexport), which is part of the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom.
No Western country has imposed sanctions on Rosatom, but neither the US government nor companies developing SMRs (such as X-energy and TerraPower) want to depend on Russian supplies.
At the same time, without a reliable source of fuel for reactors, construction and installation companies fear that they will not receive orders for their power plants. After all, it is unlikely that potential HALEU producers will launch commercial supply chains to replace the Russian uranium.
"Production of HALEU is a critical mission and all efforts to increase its production are being evaluated," a spokesperson for the U. S. Department of Energy said. "We understand the need for urgent action to incentivise the establishment of a sustainable, market-driven supply of HALEU," the spokesperson said.
American and European companies already plan to produce HALEU on a commercial scale, but it will take them years before such production is operational.
"Nobody wants to order 10 reactors without a fuel source, and nobody wants to invest in a fuel source without 10 reactor orders," said Daniel Poneman, chief executive of US nuclear fuel supplier Centrus Energy Corp. told Reuters.
Although the enrichment level of HALEU is well below the 90 percent required to build a nuclear weapon, one needs to obtain special licenses for its production and transportation, let alone the need to carry out production upgrades to meet additional safety and certification requirements.
US tries to downblend uranium, but this will also take a lot of time. According to the White House, only 7.1 tonnes were processed from 2013 to 2016.
In this regard, the US government intends to use part of its strategic military stocks of highly enriched uranium to power new reactors.
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