This is a call to action. The Department of Energy is soliciting comments on its excess uranium management plan. The deadline for comments, initially announced as August 18, 2016, has been extended until September 19. That is just 4 days away.
Here is a quote from the Federal Register request for information:
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is preparing for a potential new Secretarial Determination covering transfers of uranium for cleanup services at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant and for down-blending of highly-enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium (LEU).
This RFI solicits information from the public about the uranium markets and domestic uranium industries, and the potential effects of DOE transfers in the uranium markets and possible consequences for the domestic uranium mining, conversion and enrichment industries. DOE will consider this information as part of its analysis to determine whether its transfers would have an adverse material impact on the domestic uranium mining, conversion, or enrichment industry.
Creating benefits is better than avoiding adverse impact
Instead of devising a program with the goal of avoiding an adverse impact on the domestic nuclear fuel cycle, there is path that can result in a program that has a strongly positive impact on both the existing nuclear fuel cycle enterprise and on the speed with which the US can begin deployment of advanced reactors.
The key component in creating a positive instead of merely avoiding a negative is to correctly choose the target enrichment for the downblending operation.
The commercial nuclear fuel market is under stress as a result of the dozens of nuclear reactor shutdowns that have occurred worldwide since March 11, 2011. Reduced demand has created an oversupplied, low price situation for natural uranium, separative work units and low enriched uranium. The situation is temporary, but “temporary” has already lasted long enough to cause financial disruption, bankruptcies and capacity reductions.
If the DOE chooses to put even more material into the market, it will make matters worse. It doesn’t matter if it’s only a moderate amount of material that looks small to a bureaucrat; pushing any amount of new material into a saturated market causes major problems.
Instead of using its HEU inventory to produce an even larger oversupply of low enriched uranium, the DOE should blend its HEU to create an inventory of 19.75% uranium. That material should be held in reserve as starter material for a rapidly growing advanced nuclear reactor industry.
Whose material is it?
The DOE’s “excess” highly enriched uranium represents an asset purchased by US taxpayers in the form of separative work units (SWU). That specialized unit of measure is the way that people involved in the uranium fuel cycle keep track of the efffort put segregating uranium isotopes to create material containing a higher portion of fissile U-235 compared to the 0.7% that is found in nature.
SWU’s are a tradeable commodity with a price that varies depending on supply and demand. Per unit of contained U-235 fuel, an ever larger number of SWUs are required to increase isotopic purity.
Blending highly enriched material with natural uranium can produce the low enriched material used in conventional reactors, but it is just as feasible to mix a different amount natural or depleted uranium to produce material with varying levels purity ranging between the conventional 3-4% and whatever the weapons input has.
There is an existing market for 3-5% LEU. Short-sighted government decision makers can produce some revenue even they sell their inventories at prices that would put other suppliers out of business. That is not the kind of decision that a responsible and responsive government is supposed to make.
Create an industry-enabling stockpile
Many advanced reactor conceptual designs will optimally work with uranium that is enriched beyond the traditional 5% that is used in conventional light water reactors.
Several advanced designs, including some that have been reviewed here, would provide the best mix of responsive output, low waste and reuse of the used nuclear fuel stockpile if they use uranium that is enriched to just under the 20% limit that defines the border between low enriched uranium and highly enriched uranium.
Though existing enrichment technology can be arranged to produce whatever enrichment level customers want, there is a cost associated with altering the arrangement, amending existing licenses and changing the production schedules to produce varying levels of enrichment. Facilities would need customers to sign long term contracts for enough material to make the investment worthwhile.
Customers developing and deploying advanced reactors have many factors to consider before they can predict the amount of material that they will need. Until they have reasonably firm orders and projections, it would be imprudent — or impossible — for them to commit resources to long term, large quantity enriched uranium purchases.
If the DOE blended its highly enriched uranium to 19.75%, it could establish a fixed price for selling that material to advanced reactor developers. It could even use that material to enable the development of a useful and important industry at a lower current cost to the federal budget by creating an “in kind” program where developers are partially paid with properly enriched uranium.
This would not be a permanent situation. The supply of HEU is limited so the starting stockpile will not last long. By the time it is depleted, there should be enough market and cost information available to reactor developers so that they can sign long-term contracts allowing the enrichment industry to make the investments needed to supply their fuel material.
Once again, here is the call to action. Visit the Federal Register notice that requests information that will be used to help the DOE develop its plans for managing excess uranium.
Feel free to use any of the ideas provided here to compose your own set of comments. Send those comments in before the due date of September 19.