Say you want to make nuclear fuel: Take some uranium, and with molecular wizardry, transform this heavy metallic element into a gas. Then put it in a centrifuge and whirl it around in a radioactive tornado, up until the lightest particles cluster towards the center. Those are the particles including the uranium isotope 235. Thats the isotope for you, because it can produce energy when its split. Do this again and again in a series of centrifuges known as a waterfall, siphoning off the U-235 each time, and pretty quickly youll have low-enriched uranium, fuel for a standard nuclear reactor. Go long enough and youll ultimately reach high enrichment– and maybe have the makings of a bomb.A few weeks ago, if you had asked Jeff Navin, who runs government policy at TerraPower, a nuclear power start-up backed by Bill Gates, where he would have anticipated the very first batch of fuel for his businesss new reactors to be produced, he would have had an uncomplicated answer: Russia. Advanced reactor designs like TerraPowers are just proposals today, however they guarantee to be much safer and svelter than the enormous plants of today. The hope is that they might reinvigorate nuclear energy in the United States and in Europe, where old reactors are closing quicker than brand-new ones are being constructed. In the US, only 2 plants are under building and construction, and they have experienced enormous delays and cost overruns. In theory, advanced reactors might be more affordable to build, offering an enhance to eco-friendly energy sources like wind and solar.But to make that take place, they need a special type of fuel that can provide energy in a smaller, more efficient bundle. Not 5 percent enriched uranium, like the fuel for todays nuclear power plants, however up to 20 percent U-235, which is the cutoff for “extremely enriched” uranium. Right now, the only location that can enrich uranium to that sweet spot is Russia. In particular, its made by a business called Tenex, a subsidiary of the governments nuclear energy company, Rosatom. In 2020, when the Department of Energy announced its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program– consisting of a $160 million award split between TerraPower and its competitor X-Energy to develop pilot reactors by 2027– it was clear that Russia would be the initial source of fuel.Then came the war in Ukraine. “Its definitely altered our plans,” states Navin. “We have no interest in supporting a Russian state-owned entity.” There were constantly issues, he states, about depending on Russian fuel. The companys initial plan was to sustain up the first reactor with Russias assistance and then switch over to a domestic supply chain that would have been developed in the interim. Now, together with much of his colleagues and competitors in the innovative reactor market, Navin is rushing to figure out where else to find that fuel without derailing their timeline.The requirement for that fuel– called HALEU, or high-assay low-enriched uranium– is mostly theoretical, due to the fact that no innovative reactors actually exist yet. Currently, United States need for the stuff is limited to the military, to isotopes for medical treatments, and to area research study applications, like possible energy systems for spacecraft. The National Nuclear Security Administration has reserved enough enriched uranium to satisfy those needs until 2060. Russia, nevertheless, is actively enhancing brand-new HALEU, in part due to the fact that it keeps a little fleet of older-style plants that use higher-grade fuel. Although the nuclear market is– together with imports of gas and nickel for electrical cars and truck batteries– so far excused from current sanctions, Russian uranium is now thought about radioactive by American businesses.”Frankly, lets be genuine. I do not believe that choices on the table,” says Jacob DeWitte, CEO of Oklo, a Silicon Valley startup developing its own HALEU-dependent reactor. “Right now theres a real gap: We cant import it, and we cant produce it.”Of all the methods to make HALEU, the fastest method for the US to spin up production would involve “down-blending” the extremely enriched uranium it already has. This process, which includes blending it with unenriched metal, has been done lots of times in the past. A couple of years ago, when the Cold War was winding down, the armed force had an unforeseen issue: too much weapons-grade uranium. Non-proliferation treaties with Russia and other countries indicated the world desired fewer nuclear weapons, so the military took stock of the enriched uranium it had and turned the excess into fuel for basic reactors– that is, 5 percent enrichment, or listed below HALEU status. At the time, there was little demonstration. When it might be utilized for tidy power?Now the advanced reactor market is looking back on those decisions with some remorse, who desires to have a bunch of weapons-grade uranium sitting around. “Nobody would be losing any sleep right now if we still had a bank of fuel,” DeWitte says. He and others in the industry are promoting for the military to review whether its remaining stocks can be transformed to HALEU, though DeWitte acknowledges that “borrowing” nuclear resources from the government would be politically dicey.
Do this again and again in a series of centrifuges known as a cascade, siphoning off the U-235 each time, and quite quickly youll have low-enriched uranium, fuel for a conventional nuclear reactor. Not 5 percent enriched uranium, like the fuel for todays nuclear power plants, but up to 20 percent U-235, which is the cutoff for “extremely enriched” uranium. In 2020, when the Department of Energy revealed its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program– consisting of a $160 million award split between TerraPower and its competitor X-Energy to construct pilot reactors by 2027– it was clear that Russia would be the initial source of fuel.Then came the war in Ukraine. Now, along with numerous of his associates and rivals in the innovative reactor industry, Navin is scrambling to figure out where else to discover that fuel without thwarting their timeline.The need for that fuel– called HALEU, or high-assay low-enriched uranium– is mainly theoretical, due to the fact that no innovative reactors actually exist. Non-proliferation treaties with Russia and other nations suggested the world wanted less nuclear weapons, so the military took stock of the enriched uranium it had and turned the excess into fuel for standard reactors– that is, 5 percent enrichment, or below HALEU status.