WASHINGTON - The Department of Energy says it is moving closer to testing commercial scale advanced nuclear reactors that are safer and cheaper thanstandard reactors now in operation.
Testifying at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing last week, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff said she expected domestic production of a specialized type of uranium required by many advanced reactors to begin by the end of next year, setting the stage for two commercial-scale advanced nuclear power plants to begin operation as soon as 2028.
Under a $150 million deal signed Thursday, the Department of Energy will purchase almost 2,000 pounds of high assay, low enriched uranium - known as HALEU -- per year for a period of time to be determined by Congress.
"This is part of a much broader strategy that seeks to identify ways to support the market," Huff said. "This strategy identifies ways we can create a signal for the market that is long enough term that investors in the private industry will be confident."
The Biden administration is seeking to expand the U.S. nuclear fleet to in a bid to reduce greenhouse emissions from the power grid.
In 2020 the Energy Department agreed to spend $3.2 billion to help fund commercial-scale projects by startups Terra Power, owned by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and Maryland-based X Energy. The companies are developing advanced nuclear projects in Wyoming and Washington state respectively, with plans to begin operation by 2028.
But in order to do so they need a ready supply of HALEU, which is currently produced only in Russia. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine earlier this year, U.S. officials have been increasingly reluctant to rely on Russia for energy supplies.
Under the contract signed Thursday, the specialized uranium would be produced at a facility in Ohio, using so-called lowly enriched uranium of the sort used in standard nuclear reactors. The contract was awarded to Maryland-based Centrus Energy, which also imports enriched uranium from Russia and France for use in U.S. nuclear power plants.
At last week's hearing, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., ranking member on the senate energy committee, questioned what guarantees the Biden administration had received none of the uranium produced for advanced reactors would be sourced from Russia.
"The department shouldn't use American tax dollars to prop up a company that finances Russia's war in Ukraine," he said .
A spokesman for Centrus said the enriched uranium needed to produce HALEU would be imported from countries other than Russia. State-owned companies in France and China, along with a consortium of British, Dutch and German interests, also sell enriched uranium.
The effort to develop advanced nuclear reactors comes as traditional light water reactors continue to be built, with Southern Co. planning to finish construction on the first reactor of its new Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia next spring.
But seven years late and more than $16 billion over budget, that project has added to concern within the Biden administration that traditional nuclear technology's time has passed.
"These gigawatts of electricity (at Vogtle) were hard to come by," Huff said. "That can be helped by a future of small modular reactors that are built more like airplanes than airports."