HALEU — HALEU — HALEU
Multi-decade availability of High Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) in the U.S. ranks highest in an array of critical factors that, if not resolved, will stand in the way of advanced reactor development. In its 2021 Advanced Nuclear Survey, the U.S. Nuclear Industry Council (USNIC) found that HALEU supply led the field of some thirty issues. The ability to sell 10-20 units following initial demonstration was second with three issues tied for third (NRC licensing, sufficient federal funding for development, and financing). Unsurprisingly, the top issues were all about what it will take to make advanced reactors a commercial success in the U.S.
USNIC asked nineteen advanced reactor developers, five suppliers, and a single potential license applicant about what’s important to address now so advanced reactors would be available in the future. The report also provides a wealth of information about the initial advanced reactors. According to the GAIN Advanced Reactor Directory this is a majority (70%) of advanced reactor developers.
HALEU supply emerging as the top concern undoubtedly stems from the need to make fundamental changes to the existing light water reactor fuel supply chain. A Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) 2018 whitepaper makes the case for establishing advanced fuel cycles early so not to stall advanced reactor development. Current law allows HALEU import (and re-export), but a long-term, cost-competitive domestic supply will assure that the U.S. does not become dependent on foreign sources.
While a series of issues that figure in licensing landed high on the list of early needs, coming in last was 10 CFR Part 53 – the technology-inclusive advanced reactor regulation currently under development by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Advanced reactor early adopters will probably apply for licenses under existing Parts 50 or 52. Most respondents are not happy with the current Part 53 draft. They said Part 53 can be critical to the long-term future of advanced reactors but not until it includes meaningful reductions in review time, cost, and licensing risk as compared to existing regulations.
Security and safeguards requirements landed in the middle of the pack. There was a comment that the Atomic Energy Act requirements for security may not be appropriate or necessary for advanced reactors. (A sentiment also heard at the NRC 2021 Regulatory Information Conference.) Safeguards – which to NRC licensees typically means material control and accountability (MC&A) – did not arise separately. However, MC&A will be important for exports and could, depending on reactor technology, have greater application domestically. It is a topic that the developers need to consider.
Developers recognize that deploying advanced reactors beyond early demonstrations requires both a demand for the technology and an electricity rate structure that fairly compensates utilities for nuclear energy investment. Respondents cited the need for a variety of federal and state tax credits and policy changes. They also recommended that a small set of states should receive an early focus. Although, they seemed less certain about U.S. federal financing assistance for export.
The survey results show that the advanced nuclear community remains bullish on the future of the technology but sees about ten significant issues that need resolution before the U.S. can realize such a future.