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Reliance on Russian fuel for nuclear reactors amid Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has led to the delay of a much-awaited high-tech nuclear energy project in Wyoming.
Backed by the U.S. Department of Energy and Bill Gates, the nuclear energy project has been delayed by at least two years, with a U.S. senator saying the United States needs to to reduce reliance on Russia for a special fuel for such reactors, Reuters reports.
Set near the site of a coal plant slated for shutdown in 2025, the TerraPower nuclear energy project envisions a $4-billion Natrium plant in the remote Wyoming town of Kemmerer.
Citing a TerraPower spokesperson late on Tuesday, the Casper Star Tribune said the 345-megawatt plant will likely be delayed for at least two years.
U.S. companies are trying hard to develop a new generation of small nuclear plants to help cut carbon emissions; unfortunately, only one Russian firm sells the fuel it needs, The fuel, called“High Assay Low Enriched Uranium” or HALEU, is enriched up to 20%, much higher than the up to 5% level today's reactors use.
The U.S. is highly reliant on Russian uranium, and imported about 14 percent of its uranium and 28 percent of all enrichment services from Russia in 2021 while the figures for the European Union were 20 percent and 26 percent for imports and enrichment services, respectively. Russia is home to one of the world’s largest uranium resources with an estimated 486,000 tons of uranium, the equivalent of 8 percent of global supply.
The Biden administration is, however, pushing its own high-tech nuclear fuel projects.
The United States Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Engineering & Science Center at Texas A&M and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have partnered with Chicago-based Clean Core Thorium Energy (CCTE) to develop a new thorium-based nuclear fuel they have dubbed ANEEL. ANEEL (Advanced Nuclear Energy for Enriched Life) is a proprietary combination of thorium and HALEU that intends to address high costs and toxic waste issues.
The main difference between this and the fuel that is currently used is the level of uranium enrichment. Instead of up to 5% uranium-235 enrichment, the new generation of reactors needs fuel with up to 20 percent enrichment. Last year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved Centrus Energy’s request to make HALEU at its enrichment facility in Piketon, Ohio, becoming the only plant in the country to do so. However, more could be on the way if the new fuel proves to be a success.
While ANEEL performs best in heavy water reactors, it can also be used in traditional boiling water and pressurized water reactors. More importantly, ANEEL reactors can be deployed much faster than uranium reactors.
A key benefit of ANEEL over uranium is that it can achieve a much higher fuel burn-up rate of in the order of 55,000 MWd/T (megawatt-day per ton of fuel) compared to 7,000 MWd/T for natural uranium fuel used in pressurized water reactors. This allows the fuel to remain in the reactors for much longer meaning much longer intervals between shut downs for refueling. For instance, India’s Kaiga Unit-1 and Canada’s Darlington PHWR Unit hold the world records for uninterrupted operations at 962 days and 963 days, respectively.
By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com
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Alex Kimani is a veteran finance writer, investor, engineer and researcher for Safehaven.com.