UK takes first steps towards a new, nuclear future

The UK has stolen a march on the rest of Europe by becoming the first national to invest in next generation of nuclear fuel, namely, high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU).

The World Nuclear Association offers a useful piece of background information:

The current fleet of nuclear reactors runs primarily on uranium fuel enriched up to 5% uranium-235 (U-235). High-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) is defined as uranium enriched to greater than 5% and less than 20% of the U-235 isotope.

Applications for HALEU are today limited to research reactors and medical isotope production. However, HALEU will be needed for many advanced power reactor fuels, and more than half of the small modular reactor (SMR) designs in development.

At present only Russia and China have the infrastructure to produce HALEU at scale. Centrus Energy, in the United States, began producing HALEU from a demonstration-scale cascade in October 2023.

13th December 2023

The Secretary of State, Claire Coutinho, yesterday visited Urenco in Cheshire, who have been awarded £196 million to build a uranium enrichment facility.

By 2031 the Urenco facility will be producing fuel that would be ready to export or use domestically, reducing Russia’s influence on the global uranium supply chain.

It is suggested that by that date, the facility will have the capacity to produce up to 10 tonnes of HALEU per year which, when fabricated into fuel, could contain as much energy as over one million tons of coal.

The funding is part of the £300 million HALEU programme announced in January this year. Urenco, which is part owned by the UK Government and renowned for nuclear enrichment services, will co-fund the facility.

A consultation has also been launched which proposes designating all fusion plants ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’ enabling them to bypass normal local planning requirements, instead being assessed by the Planning Inspectorate and ultimately decided on by the Secretary of State for energy.

The UK is also leading the way in fusion energy development, as engineering and construction companies will be invited on to bid for up to £600 million to build the first commercially viable fusion prototype power plant at a former coal plant in Nottinghamshire. Fusion could generate a near limitless source of clean electricity, securing the UK’s long-term energy independence.

Boris Schucht, CEO of Urenco, said: ‘The responsibility the nuclear industry has to help governments and customers to achieve climate change and energy security goals is clear. 

‘We welcome this government investment, which will help accelerate the development of a civil HALEU commercial market and in-turn the development of the next generation of nuclear power plants. These plants will have even higher safety standards and lend themselves to quicker licensing and construction processes.

‘Urenco has the knowledge and experience to play a leading role in the production of HALEU and other advanced fuels, operating securely under inter-governmental treaties to ensure the peaceful use and safeguarding of nuclear technology.’

Tom Greatrex, Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association said: ‘This investment will enable the UK to fuel advanced reactors around the world, building on our existing capabilities to strengthen energy security for our allies while reducing their reliance on Russia.’


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