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UK to invest hundreds of millions into the production of fuel for advanced reactors

8th January 2024

By: Rebecca Campbell

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

     

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The UK government has announced that it is to invest £300-million in the creation of a commercial-scale production plant for high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel for nuclear reactors. It will be located in the north-west of England.

HALEU is defined as uranium that is enriched to more than 5%, but less than 20%, with the uranium-235 (U-235) isotope. Currently, HALEU is largely used in research reactors and for the production of medical radioisotopes. Current conventional nuclear power plant reactors use low-enriched uranium (enriched to 5%, or less, of U-235). But HALEU will be required to power advanced reactor designs, including more than half of the small modular reactors (SMRs), currently under development.

At the moment, only Russia and China can produce HALEU “at scale”. In the US, a demonstration-scale facility started operation in October.

“Britain gave the world its first operational nuclear power plant, and now we will be the first nation in Europe outside of Russia to produce advanced nuclear fuel,” highlighted UK Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary (Cabinet Minister) Claire Coutinho. “This will be critical for energy security at home and abroad and builds on Britain’s historic competitive advantages.”

UK government and industry are already jointly investing up to £26-million to restore a domestic UK uranium conversion capability. The British government is also going to provide a further £10-million for skills and site development to prepare for the production of other advanced nuclear fuels in the UK.

The UK is targeting up to 24 GW of nuclear energy by 2050. This would provide 25% of the country’s electricity.

An important role in this expansion of UK nuclear energy capacity is expected to be played by advanced modular reactors (AMRs). These are SMRs that will use Generation (Gen) IV technologies; other SMRs use Gen III+ or III++ technologies. Gen IV designs include, but are not restricted to, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs); Gen III+ and III++ designs are almost entirely pressurised water reactors. Gen IV will not replace Gen III++; they will exist in parallel. (South Africa’s pebble bed modular reactor programme, which was effectively terminated in 2010, was a Gen IV HTGR design.)

The big advantage of Gen IV AMRs is that they will be able to be used directly for the production of industrial (“process”) heat and of hydrogen, and not just for the generation of low-carbon electricity.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter

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