Russian uranium no longer option for Natrium plant

Nicole Pollack with the Casper Star-Tribune, from the Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — Questions about the advanced nuclear reactor planned for Kemmerer have circulated since the day TerraPower announced it would be built in Wyoming. 

People living near the candidate sites wanted to know where the spent fuel would go. If — and how — the electricity the plant generated would be taxed. Whether workers would be rehired from the coal plant it ended up replacing, and if the coal mine the plant relied on would survive.

Wyoming, home to the vestiges of a booming uranium industry, still houses plenty of untapped uranium reserves, and TerraPower has also been asked many times whether the reactor could run on Wyoming uranium. Before mid-February, the answer was yes, it was possible, but not in time for this first plant. 

The U.S. imports nearly all of the uranium it uses to generate nuclear power. Advanced reactors like TerraPower’s require a more highly enriched fuel that, at present, is only sold by a state-owned Russian company. It didn’t look like the U.S. would be able to establish its own fuel supply by the plant’s 2028 operating deadline. Until that supply chain was in place, TerraPower had no choice but to get its fuel from Russia. 

Even though that wasn’t the answer most people wanted to hear, it was one many seemed to accept. The state hoped to attract many more advanced reactors, after all. If the endeavor succeeded, interest in Wyoming uranium would probably follow. 

Then Russia invaded Ukraine, and as the U.S. looked to wall itself off from Russian energy, a lot of Americans realized just how much the U.S. nuclear sector — whose aging plants already struggle to compete economically with electricity produced from natural gas and renewables — depends on the cheaper uranium imported from Russia and its neighbors. 

On Feb. 28, Wyoming’s Legislature voted 25-34 on a bill amendment that would’ve barred any nuclear plant operating in the state from using Russian uranium. U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-WY, introduced a bill this past week in the Senate to add uranium to the federal ban on Russian oil and gas. 

According to Jeff Navin, TerraPower’s director of external affairs, Russian fuel is no longer an option, regardless of what lawmakers do. Not even for that first plant. 

“We have stopped any and all conversations with the Russians,” Navin said. “We have no interest in re-engaging with the Russians. We are putting all of our efforts into trying to figure out how to get a domestic supply chain stood up as quickly as possible.” 

Congress’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program requires the TerraPower reactor and one other facility to be operational by 2028 to qualify for billions in matching Department of Energy funds. The ambitious initiative, intended to speed up the notoriously slow process of building a nuclear plant, doesn’t budget much time for bumps in the road, but fuel has become an unexpected hurdle. 

Turning its back on Russia leaves TerraPower with six years to secure another supplier. 

“Two months ago, I could have told you our plan to get our first core load,” Navin said. “Today, I can’t. So it’s certainly introducing a little more uncertainty into the project.” 

There’s exactly one U.S. enrichment facility authorized to make the fuel TerraPower needs: a nearly operational Ohio demonstration plant, owned by nuclear fuel supplier Centrus Energy, that will be able to produce about 900 kilograms per year. 

Combined, the first core loads of the two nuclear plants scheduled to start up by 2028 require nearly 20 times that volume. Some of that fuel could potentially be made using federal stockpiles of highly enriched uranium through a process known as downblending, but downblending isn’t a long-term alternative to commercial production. Which means the fate of TerraPower’s Wyoming plant is now tied to the scale-up of the U.S. nuclear supply chain. 

“It’s an incredibly important area,” said Andrew Griffith, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear fuel at the Department of Energy. “And we’ve got to get it right, and we’ve got to get it quickly.”

Most of the responsibility for bridging the enrichment gap falls to Congress. Existing appropriations, including the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill passed last week, have given the Department of Energy the money to get started. It was doing just that — the agency issued a request for information about the commercialization of advanced nuclear fuel — when the establishment of a U.S. source became an immediate concern. 

“Clearly, this is a really important need. It’s a recognized need. ... But it is a function of funding,” Griffith said. 

The more money Congress shells out to help keep the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program on schedule, the faster the Department of Energy anticipates onboarding industry partners and bringing commercial enrichment capacity online. 

When it comes to the earliest reactors, though, Griffith isn’t making any promises, no matter how deep Congressional pockets may prove. 

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said, “regardless.”


This story was published on March 20.


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