Nuclear Fuel Facility Unveiled for Natrium Fast Reactor Demonstration

A fuel fabrication facility that will create reliable fuel for TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s (GEH’s) 345-MWe Natrium pool-type sodium fast reactor (SFR) demonstration in Wyoming and future Natrium nuclear plants is taking shape at Global Nuclear Fuel–Americas’ (GNF-A’s) nuclear fuel fabrication plant in Wilmington, North Carolina.

GNF-A, a 2007-established GE-led joint venture with Hitachi, on Oct. 21 announced an agreement with TerraPower to build the Natrium Fuel Facility at its existing plant site, which is one of three fuel fabrication plants in the U.S. The facility, which represents an investment of more than $200 million, will be jointly funded by TerraPower and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through its $2 billion award under the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP).

A Tight Project Timeframe

Construction of the Natrium Fuel Facility is expected to begin in 2023. TerraPower and GEH expect to begin operating the Natrium demonstration at the site of a retired PacifiCorp coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, by 2028, as required under the ARDP’s terms. The project’s stakeholders said they plan to submit the pioneering commercial-scale advanced reactor project’s construction permit application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in mid-2023, leaving a tight construction timeframe for the first-of-a-kind project.

The Natrium plant, which blends the “best of” TerraPower’s Traveling Wave Reactor (TWR) and GEH’s PRISM technology, is a 345-MWe SFR paired with a flexible molten salt energy storage system (capable of storing 5.5 GWh) that can boost its capacity to 500 MWe. The demonstration’s nuclear heat source is based on a pool-type sodium fast reactor design using metallic uranium-zirconium (U-Zr) fuel, and like many other advanced reactors, Natrium will use high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU)—a form of uranium enriched up to 20% that is commercially available only from Russian state-owned enrichment firm TENEX.

TerraPower has expressed concerns about procuring a reliable supply of HALEU to meet the demonstration project’s timeframe. Last year, TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque told POWER that along with investing in a fuel facility to make Natrium fuel, the Natrium consortium planned to “work closely” with the Department of Defense as well as to team with Centrus Energy to establish a HALEU supply.

The company has since publicly underscored its fuel supply concerns. “When TerraPower applied for the ARDP in 2020, our plan was to use HALEU from [TENEX] for our initial core load while Congress and the DOE established the Advanced Nuclear Fuel Availability Program to make commercial HALEU available in the U.S.,” Jeff Navin, director of External Affairs at TerraPower told a U.S. Senate committee in July. “This plan was blessed by the Department of Energy as the best path to get our projects launched on the timeframe mandated by Congress, while the department worked separately to launch the program created by the Committee to develop HALEU enrichment capability in the United States. But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, TerraPower has made clear that it will not use Russian HALEU to power its reactor. That leaves our project, and many other advanced reactors, without a source of fuel,” he said.

Navin said the concern pervades, with far-reaching implications. “Without HALEU we cannot power our reactor, and without confidence that fuel will be available for future reactors, we cannot sell additional plants. Every other advanced nuclear developer in the U.S. that relies on HALEU faces the same issue,” he said.

GNF-A has already kicked off a process to license the standalone Category II fuel fabrication facility for the Natrium demonstration reactor within an existing controlled access area. “The Natrium Fuel Facility will help establish the fuel supply chain that will be required for the U.S. to deploy advanced reactors domestically and globally,” Tammy Orr, senior vice president of Fuel Products at GNF-A, said last week. “This is a significant investment in our operation, and we’re excited to build on our more than 50-year legacy as a fuel manufacturer in support of carbon-free energy generation.”

X-Energy Breaks Ground on TRISO Facility for Xe-100 Reactor Demonstration

The Natrium Fuel Facility’s unveiling comes one week after X-energy subsidiary TRISO-X broke ground on its commercial-scale advanced nuclear fuel facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Dubbed “TF3,” the fuel facility will manufacture tri-structural isotropic (TRISO) particle fuel when commissioned and operational in 2025.

“The fuel X-energy will produce at this Oak Ridge facility will build a more robust and secure nuclear energy supply chain—supporting the deployment of nuclear energy on a scale never seen before,” said Dr. Pete Pappano, president of TRISO-X. “With support from the U.S. Department of Energy, we are proud that TRISO-X is leading the commercial development of this safe, innovative technology and that it will be among the first advanced nuclear fuels demonstrated in a grid-scale next-generation reactor.”

Alongside the  Natrium consortium, Rockville, Maryland–based X-energy won first-round funding under the first ARDP pathway in a tough competition for the federal funding opportunity. X-energy has said it will use the funding to deliver a commercial four-unit power plant based on its Xe-100 reactor design—an 80-MWe/200-MWth pebble-bed high-temperature gas reactor, which can be scaled as a four-pack to 320 MWe—at a site in Washington state.

The TRISO-X nuclear fuel produced in the Oak Ridge facility will be used in X-energy’s Xe-100 high-temperature gas reactors, which are expected to be operational by 2028. X-energy will also leverage the ARDP award to deliver its commercial-scale TF3 fuel fabrication facility, and it also has a contract in place with Centrus for initial supply of HALEU.

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).

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