Investment into advanced nuclear technologies has become central to national and global efforts to achieve near-term decarbonization targets. The rationale is simple. Nuclear power – which currently constitutes 20% of the U.S. energy mix – produces no carbon emissions during operation and is capable of producing electricity around the clock the same way that baseload fossil fuels can. Simply put, clean nuclear power can replace fossil fuel electricity generation to drastically decarbonize grids globally. Recognizing this immense potential, the public and private sectors have recently launched several efforts to invest and support the commercialization of advanced nuclear reactor and fuel technologies to mitigate concerns such as waste disposal, cost and project management, and operational safety. The importance of this effort is not only critical for the decarbonization of developed markets such as the U.S., but perhaps even more so for the potential to deploy clean and abundant power to emerging and industrializing nations that have not historically been able to leverage nuclear power.
Despite advanced nuclear reactor concepts attracting billions in private and public sector financing, advanced nuclear fuels that are optimized for use in existing reactors offer the path of least resistance for the near-term deployment of advanced nuclear technologies. Much of this stems from two fundamental requirements to commercialize any U.S.-based advanced nuclear reactor technology. First, any new reactor technology must be licensed to operate by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (the requirement under the Atomic Energy Act for the licensing of “production or utilization facilities” can be found at AEA Sections 101, 103, and 104, codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 2131-34). Despite this, there currently is no technology-neutral licensing framework in place capable of quickly licensing an advanced and novel reactor system. As a result, the licensing timeline and cost necessary for any novel reactor design to be built is highly uncertain. Second, the majority of advanced nuclear technologies – including both advanced reactors and fuels – require high-assay low-enriched Uranium (HALEU) instead of the traditional low-enriched Uranium (LEU) used in existing U.S. reactors.
HALEU differs from LEU in that it has a higher enrichment level – between 5% and 20% U-235 by volume – as opposed to LEU which utilizes enrichment levels of 5% or less. This increase in enrichment enables many of the superior operational benefits discussed above. However, there is currently no commercial supply of HALEU in the U.S and any user currently in need of HALEU must procure it from Russia. In order for the U.S. public and private sectors to stand up a domestic HALEU enrichment infrastructure capable of meeting the demand for advanced nuclear technologies, there must be a dependable demand signal from to-be users of HALEU such that U.S.-based enrichers can justify taking on the cost and risk of building increased domestic enrichment capacity. Given the uncertainties around the licensing and deployment of advanced reactors, however, the demand signal created by these technologies is arguably not dependable enough to incentivize the private and public sectors to justify the risk of investment. Further, the lack of a dependable domestic (or even Western) HALEU infrastructure increases the risk for private sector investment into these same advanced reactor technologies. Without the creation of this infrastructure, the future of such technologies – and the corresponding return on investment – is in jeopardy. This creates a “chicken and egg” problem for the development of advanced nuclear reactor technologies that require HALEU.
Advanced nuclear fuel technologies that utilize HALEU and that are optimized for use in existing and proven reactors can mitigate both of the above concerns. One prime example of such a technology, being developed by Chicago-based Clean Core Thorium Energy (Clean Core), is their “ANEEL Fuel”. The ANEEL Fuel utilizes Thorium and HALEU and is designed to be seamlessly plugged into heavy-water reactors that have been operating in five countries for over 40 years. Without altering a single dimension of the fuel containment within the reactor, this technology enables increased accident tolerance, a decrease in waste by over 85%, decreased operating costs, and proliferation resistance. Perhaps most significantly, by only changing the fuel composition of the fuel pellets, the licensing of this technology is far more predictable from a timeline and cost perspective since the review process does not require the rigorous review of a completely novel reactor system. The company is currently collaborating with the U.S. D.O.E.’s Idaho National Laboratory under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement for confirmatory fuel testing and is poised to go to market by 2025.
This predictability in the ANEEL Fuel’s commercialization timeline is particularly valuable for the development of the aforementioned U.S.-based HALEU enrichment infrastructure. According to Clean Core’s CEO, a single 900MWe reactor – a dozen of which are currently operating in Canada – loaded with ANEEL Fuel will require up to 20 metric tons of HALEU as an initial fuel core load. This does not even consider the ongoing requirements for HALEU required for daily refueling of the reactor. With a clear path and timeline to commercialization, and a corresponding necessity for HALEU in the near-term, the predictable demand signal created by technologies like the ANEEL Fuel is exactly what is necessary for U.S.-based enrichers to justify taking on the capital investment of developing increased enrichment capacity. Further, by kickstarting the development of this enrichment infrastructure, it is technologies like the ANEEL Fuel that will ensure that HALEU is available for promising advanced reactor technologies currently under development that will be commercialized in years to come.
Advanced nuclear power will be fundamental to the future decarbonization of developed and emerging markets. However, that decarbonization must begin in the immediate term if it is seriously intended to mitigate the effects of an impending climate crisis. Advanced nuclear reactor concepts simply do not offer the regulatory nor financial predictability necessary to unlock the benefits of advanced nuclear in the immediate term. Rather, it is with advanced nuclear fuel technologies like the ANEEL Fuel where investment and legislative support should be directed to immediately enable the benefits that advanced nuclear has to offer.
Manan Shah is an Associate Editor on the Michigan Technology Law Review.