Axios Pro Exclusive Content

Nuclear fuel trials and tribulations

Illustration of a nuclear warning as a clock face

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

All eyes are on DOE after last week's Senate passage of the Russian uranium ban.

Why it matters: Getting nuclear fuel supply programs off the ground will be crucial if the Biden administration wants to avoid disruptions in the industry and new hurdles for the next generation of reactors.

  • Expect close Hill scrutiny. "We're going to stay on them to make sure that they move as quickly as possible," said House Energy-Water Approps Chair Chuck Fleischmann.

Zoom in: The legislation, which President Biden is expected to sign, bans imports of Russian enriched uranium — with waivers for companies to continue bringing it in until 2028.

  • It also unlocks $2.7 billion in new funding for nuclear fuel supply programs at DOE, on top of $700 million already available from the IRA.

Context: Nuclear fuel company Centrus started enriching high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU, for advanced reactors at its facility in Ohio last year under a contract with DOE.

  • It's often cited as a promising first mover: "They're doing exemplary work," Fleischmann said.
  • But Centrus also has a supply contract to bring in low enriched uranium from Russian exporter TENEX. Centrus told Axios it will seek a waiver from the ban to continue.
  • "Prompt approval of waivers is critical not only to Centrus but to the entire U.S. nuclear industry," said company spokesperson Lindsey Geisler.
  • And the company said in a recent federal filing that it no longer expects to deliver its full allocation of HALEU this year because DOE has struggled to provide enough storage containers.

That exemplifies the kind of messy implications that DOE and the industry will have to sift through, but Centrus is confident it can help fill the Russian import gap.

  • "With sufficient funding, our enrichment facility in Ohio could be expanded with thousands of additional centrifuges to replace Russian imports with American production," Geisler told Nick in an email.
  • Urenco also plans to expand enrichment at its New Mexico facility.
  • Plus, the industry has largely been anticipating the ban. It'll ultimately be helpful because "it gives a very concrete deadline for industry to be able to plan against," said Rowen Price, a nuclear policy advisor at Third Way.

The bottom line: The ban bill represents a big windfall for domestic fuel supply. But it's early days.

  • "Any delay in further implementation of the program could see knock-on effects such that it impacts developers' timelines, and if you impact the timeline of a developer that can also add significant cost," said Erik Cothron, a senior analyst at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.
Go deeper