UK invests in advanced nuclear fuel, moves forward on fusion

Last week, the United Kingdom announced two significant initiatives that help promote commercialization of next-generation clean energy technology.  First, the UK will help fund a uranium enrichment plant to produce high-assay low enriched uranium (“HALEU”), which is needed to fuel many advanced nuclear reactors.  Second, the UK is planning to issue a National Policy Statement on fusion energy plants, which will provide permitting clarity for the UK fusion industry.

New HALEU enrichment facility will support advanced reactor fuel supply chain

As western countries look to establish domestic sources for HALEU to support advanced reactors, the UK takes a big step forward.  On May 8, the UK government issued a press release announcing that it would invest £196 million for the construction of a new enrichment facility in Cheshire, UK.  The new facility would produce high-assay low enriched uranium (“HALEU”), which is uranium enriched between 5% and 20%—above the 5% enrichment of traditional nuclear fuel but below the 20% at which non-proliferation becomes a more serious concern.

HALEU is needed for the fuel of most advanced reactor designs because the higher enrichment enables higher efficiency.  In the U.S., the Department of Energy estimates that more than 40 tons of HALEU could be needed by 2030 in the United States alone.  Across the pond, the UK aims to quadruple its nuclear capacity by 2050, a build-out that will require large scale deployment of HALEU-fueled advanced reactors.

Despite the need for HALEU, its availability is limited.  Currently, Russia is the only country with commercial-scale HALEU development.  The UK’s announcement comes as countries seek to move away from reliance on Russian nuclear fuel in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.  Notably, at COP28, the U.S., Canada, Japan, France, and the United Kingdom pledged to try to mobilize at least $4.2 billion in government-led investments to build out a collective enrichment and conversion capacity.  The UK’s announcement builds on this commitment and, at this point, makes the UK the first European country outside of Russia to produce HALEU.  UK Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Claire Coutinho, said “[w]e stood up to Putin on oil and gas, and we won’t let him hold us to ransom on nuclear fuel.”

The new UK enrichment plant will be operated by Urenco and built at Urenco’s existing Capenhurst enrichment facility.  Once operational, the new facility will have the capacity to produce up to 10 metric tons of HALEU per year by 2031.  In the U.S., HALEU has become a priority in recent legislation, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, and in DOE initiatives, and we expect to see further progress on developing a domestic source.

Fusion energy pathway will provide permitting clarity in UK

Also on May 8, 2024, the UK government announced a consultation—a type of policy-oriented request for comment—in anticipation of the government developing a National Policy Statement on fusion energy.  A National Policy Statement provides a legal framework for the government to make siting and planning decisions for major infrastructure.  The UK government hopes the National Policy Statement on fusion will help the UK capture a significant part of the fusion market by clarifying the planning process for developers.

Hand in hand with the creation of a National Policy Statement is the classification of fusion energy plants as National Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs).  If a fusion plant is classified as an NSIP, then the planning permission shifts from the relevant local authority in England or Wales to the national British Secretary of State.  The result of this shift is a streamlined review and approval process that would make it easier to build fusion plants.

The UK hopes to have commercial fusion energy connected to the grid by the early 2040s, both for private fusion companies and the government’s STEP fusion power plant program.  The government expects a National Policy Statement on fusion energy will build on the UK’s fusion regulatory pathway, which will be distinct from that for fission, and help achieve this deployment goal.  The consultation on the National Policy Statement provides the public with an opportunity to comment on the potential planning and siting framework aspect of this plan.  Responses to the consultation are due by 11:59pm on July 3, 2024.

 

 

For more information, please contact Amy Roma, Partner, Stephanie Fishman, Senior Associate, or Cameron Tarry Hughes, Associate.

Contacts
Amy Roma
Partner
Washington, D.C.
Stephanie Fishman
Senior Associate
Washington, D.C.
Cameron Hughes
Associate
Washington, D.C.

 

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