June 8, 2022

The US Return to Nuclear Energy Leadership: Uranium Reserves

America is losing its competitive global position as the world leader in nuclear energy and technology to state-owned enterprises, including Russia and China, and other competitor nations are also aggressively moving to surpass the United States.

America is on the brink of losing its ability to produce domestic uranium for the fabrication of nuclear fuel, threatening our national interest and national security.

The return to its position as the leading country in nuclear energy utility is tough, but the United States has a plan.

The Strategy to Restore American Nuclear Energy Leadership, released by the White House on July 12, 2019, outlines a multi-step strategic plan to return America to its position as the world leader in nuclear energy. The first step to preserving the U.S. Nuclear Fuel Cycle is to develop a U.S. uranium reserve.

The United States has historically maintained a national stockpile of enriched uranium to cover fuel fabrication requirements in the event of unexpected supply disruptions.

Since the last uranium reserve was built in 1991, the United States has experienced a severe drop-off in domestic production. Fuel for nuclear reactors is created by enriching natural uranium to become uranium hexafluoride (UF6), followed by forming the UF6 into pellets and compression packages, and finally winding it into fuel rods. The United States has the capability to build a U.S. uranium reserve, but has lacked the required congressional authorization since 2016.

PNNL is leading the development of a cost-effective U.S. uranium reserve. The first step to developing an operational reserve is to establish a mechanism for holding reserve uranium over time. The second step is to develop an operational reserve. The third step, which will allow for the value of the reserve to be realized, is to build a uranium reserve plant.

The approach that PNNL is currently refining, which involves separating and expanding the U.S. government’s current “borrowed” uranium. In the past, U.S. government-owned enriched uranium has been lent to commercial nuclear fuel fabricators for use in nuclear reactors. As a result, the government is required to replenish the depleted uranium. PNNL has identified several solutions to accomplish this.

The best route to build an operational U.S. uranium reserve will be determined by evaluating various options and their feasibility.

The Long Road Ahead

PNNL expects to complete the preliminary design of the reserve within two years. The next phase includes conducting analyses of a range of options. These could include, but are not limited to, building a new U.S. enrichment facility, expanding an existing U.S. enrichment facility, or building a new U.S. uranium reserve plant.

Once PNNL completes the feasibility study, PNNL will begin the acquisition of needed regulatory approvals and commercial partners.

Conclusion

An operational U.S. uranium reserve is a critical component of the White House strategy to return America to global leadership in nuclear energy. Building a U.S. uranium reserve will increase the U.S. nuclear energy industry’s ability to compete for business in the global market.

The United States is facing a precarious situation in that it does not have enough enriched uranium to meet its own needs, and the government has no path to replenish the reserve. The United States has historically maintained a national stockpile of enriched uranium to cover fuel fabrication requirements in the event of unexpected supply disruptions.

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