19.9 C
New York
Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Nuclear Reactors of the Future Have a Russia Problem

Say you want to make nuclear fuel: Take some uranium, and with molecular wizardry, transform this heavy metallic element into a gas. Then put it in a centrifuge and whirl it around in a radioactive tornado, until the lightest particles cluster towards the center. Those are the molecules containing the uranium isotope 235. That’s the isotope for you, because it can produce energy when it’s split. Do this again and again in a series of centrifuges known as a cascade, siphoning off the U-235 each time, and pretty soon you’ll have low-enriched uranium, fuel for a traditional nuclear reactor. Go long enough and you’ll eventually reach high enrichment—and perhaps have the makings of a bomb.

A few weeks ago, if you had asked Jeff Navin, who runs government policy at TerraPower, a nuclear power startup backed by Bill Gates, where he would have expected the first batch of fuel for his company’s new reactors to be produced, he would have had a straightforward answer: Russia. Advanced reactor designs like TerraPower’s are only proposals right now, but they promise to be safer and svelter than the massive plants of today. The hope is that they might reinvigorate nuclear energy in the United States and in Europe, where old reactors are closing faster than new ones are being built. In the US, only two plants are under construction, and they have experienced massive delays and cost overruns. In theory, advanced reactors could be cheaper to build, offering a complement to renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

But to make that happen, they require a special kind of fuel that can deliver energy in a smaller, more efficient package. Not 5 percent enriched uranium, like the fuel for today’s nuclear power plants, but up to 20 percent U-235, which is the cutoff for “highly enriched” uranium. Right now, the only place that can enrich uranium to that sweet spot is Russia. In particular, it’s made by a company called Tenex, a subsidiary of the government’s nuclear energy company, Rosatom. In 2020, when the Department of Energy announced its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program—including a $160 million award split between TerraPower and its competitor X-Energy to build pilot reactors by 2027—it was clear that Russia would be the initial source of fuel.

Then came the war in Ukraine. “It's definitely changed our plans,” says Navin. “We have no interest in supporting a Russian state-owned entity.” There were always concerns, he says, about depending on Russian fuel. The company’s original plan was to fuel up the first reactor with Russia’s help and then switch over to a domestic supply chain that would have been built up in the interim. Now, along with many of his colleagues and competitors in the advanced reactor industry, Navin is scrambling to figure out where else to find that fuel without derailing their timeline.

The need for that fuel—called HALEU, or high-assay low-enriched uranium—is mostly theoretical, because no advanced reactors actually exist yet. Currently, US demand for the stuff is limited to the military, to isotopes for medical treatments, and to space research applications, like possible energy systems for spacecraft. The National Nuclear Security Administration has set aside enough enriched uranium to satisfy those needs until 2060. Russia, however, is actively enriching new HALEU, in part because it maintains a small fleet of older-style plants that use higher-grade fuel. Although the nuclear industry is—along with imports of natural gas and nickel for electric car batteries—so far exempted from recent sanctions, Russian uranium is now considered radioactive by American businesses.

“Frankly, let’s be real. I don’t think that option’s on the table,” says Jacob DeWitte, CEO of Oklo, a Silicon Valley startup designing its own HALEU-dependent reactor. “Right now there’s a real gap: We can’t import it, and we can’t produce it yet.”

Of all the ways to make HALEU, the fastest way for the US to spin up production would involve “down-blending” the highly enriched uranium it already has. This process, which involves mixing it with unenriched metal, has been done plenty of times before. A few decades ago, when the Cold War was winding down, the military had an unexpected problem: too much weapons-grade uranium. Non-proliferation treaties with Russia and other countries meant the world wanted fewer nuclear weapons, so the military took stock of the enriched uranium it had and turned the excess into fuel for standard reactors—that is, 5 percent enrichment, or below HALEU status. At the time, there was little protest. Who wants to have a bunch of weapons-grade uranium sitting around when it could be used for clean power?

Now the advanced reactor industry is looking back on those decisions with some regret. “Nobody would be losing any sleep right now if we still had a bank of fuel,” DeWitte says. He and others in the industry are advocating for the military to revisit whether its remaining stocks can be converted to HALEU, though DeWitte acknowledges that “borrowing” nuclear resources from the government would be politically dicey.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

With down-blending off the table, the US has another option: enrichment. But while it’s easy to downgrade uranium, “it’s a hell of a lot harder to bring it back up,” DeWitte says. Since there’s little immediate need for new enriched uranium, there’s not much reason for commercial companies to start making it again. The one active enrichment facility in the US, a plant in New Mexico operated by the British company Urenco, is busy making low-enriched fuel; all the others have been switched off thanks to low demand.

“There’s this chicken and egg problem,” says Allison Macfarlane, director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and the former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “No one is interested in making HALEU unless they know there’s enough customers for HALEU.” She characterizes the new generation of nuclear facilities as “paper reactors”—fanciful startup designs that are not yet built or tested, and perhaps never will be, given their unproven economics and unclear path to US regulatory approval. She points to an awkward truth for the industry: that perhaps the reason no one is willing to plunk down large sums of money for new HALEU centrifuges is because no one is sure if the customers will ever exist. Ramping up fuel production likely won’t happen without significant government support, Macfarlane says.

The US Department of Energy, which estimates the industry will require 40 metric tons of HALEU by 2030, has been trying to kick-start those efforts. One possibility is to reuse fuel from reactors that previously used highly enriched fuel uranium, says Monica Regalbuto, head of nuclear fuel cycle strategy at Idaho National Laboratory, a DOE facility. That kind of plant is rare in the US, but the lab’s facilities do include a no-longer-used research reactor that fits the bill. The goal is to recover its enriched uranium metal while stripping away unwanted byproducts of nuclear fission, making up to 10 metric tons of recycled fuel from INL’s reactor available to advanced fission companies. One of those companies is Oklo, which hopes to recycle its own fuel to produce new HALEU decades from now.

That initial batch of recycled fuel from Idaho will give those companies a cushion. But it will only cover a small portion of the industry’s needs, Regalbuto adds, and must be pursued alongside a plan for domestic enrichment. The US will have to start enriching again anyway, she notes, since the medical and space industries rely on stockpiles that will eventually run out. But that won’t happen fast enough for the nuclear power industry. “Some of the advanced reactor developers want to come online sooner than when centrifuges will be available,” she says.

So someone will need to invest in new capabilities. The DOE has started with a $115 million cost-sharing contract with nuclear fuel supplier Centrus Energy, which plans to make HALEU on a small scale—totaling about 5 metric tons—in Ohio over the course of a three-year pilot. But 5 metric tons is tiny compared with what the industry estimates it will need, says TerraPower’s Navin, and it’s unclear whether the funding will materialize for a drastic scale-up. “If it’s a few metric tons a year, we would have to wait on that production,” he says.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Navin says there’s some room for optimism that more investment will arrive in the US, especially as the industry turns away from Russian uranium—not just HALEU, but for low-enriched uranium too. To some, the Ukraine conflict is a cautionary tale for nuclear energy, a reminder of the horrors of fallout and new dangers as conflicts spread to nuclear-powered states. But Navin believes it could also help kick off a renaissance for nuclear energy in the West as a way to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas, and to keep down fossil fuel emissions. To do that, the US will need to bring enrichment home to roost. The question is, who will pay to hatch a chicken without the egg?


More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!Jacques Vallée still doesn’t know what UFOs areWhat will it take to make genetic databases more diverse?TikTok was designed for warHow Google's new tech reads your body languageThe quiet way advertisers track your browsing👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database🏃🏽‍♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones

Related Articles

Latest Articles