High-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) production in the United States

High-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) - uranium with enrichment between 5% and 20% U-235 - is used in fuel of research reactors. A number of projects launched in recent months aim at providing the United States with the capability to produce new HALEU.

Currently, the main U.S. source of HALEU is about 10 tonnes of the material that has been produced at the Materials and Fuels Complex of the Idaho National Laboratory. The uranium was recovered from irradiated fuel of the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) that operated at INL from 1964 to 1994. In addition, in June 2018 the INL received $15 million for a pilot project that will recover uranium that will be down-blended to HALEU from naval spent fuel. In January 2019, DoE completed an environmental assessment that cleared the way for launching HALEU fuel fabrication at the INL.

In January 2019, the Department of Energy announced its intent to award a $115 million three-year contract to produce HALEU to a subsidiary of Centrus, a company that runs the American Centrifuge Project. The project was shut down in 2016 and in May 2018 Centrus began the process of decommissioning the lead cascade facility at Piketon, Ohio, which included 120 centrifuges. Under the new contract, the company will deploy a cascade of 16 AC-100M centrifuges that will be able to produce HALEU with up to 19.75% enrichment by October 2020. It appears that these will be new centrifuges.

In February 2019, the enrichment company Urenco USA also announced a plan to produce HALEU in the United States. According to Urenco, some of its facilities are already licensed to produce uranium with enrichments higher than 5%. It will also explore the construction of a dedicated HALEU unit at its US facility. Urenco USA is currently operating a centrifuge plant in Eunice, New Mexico that has a capacity of 4,800 tSWU/year. Unlike the INL or Centrus material, the HALEU produced by Urenco cannot be used in defense-related applications.