May 22, 2024

Britain is building Europe’s first next-generation nuclear fuel plant

Britain is investing nearly 200 million pounds ($251.14 million) to build Europe’s first plant to produce highly enriched, low-enriched uranium (HALEU), the fuel needed for next-generation nuclear power projects, the government announced Wednesday.

As part of efforts to meet climate targets and increase energy security, Britain aims to increase its nuclear capacity to 24 gigawatts by 2050, a quarter of forecast electricity needs, up from around 14% today. The country hopes to build new advanced reactors that require HALEU fuel.

As more advanced modular reactors come online, HALEU fuel will be required. Britain’s nuclear and renewable energy minister, Andrew Bowie, said in an interview that if the technology became more available in Britain, it could be supplied from a domestic source.

Britain has awarded uranium enrichment company Urenco £196m to build a plant in Cheshire, north-west England, which will create around 400 jobs. According to the Department of Energy Conservation and Net Zero, the plant will be ready to produce fuel that can be used domestically or exported by 2031.

“There are obvious opportunities to export this fuel to our allies who want to wean themselves off an over-dependence on Russia for nuclear fuel,” Bowie said.

Many companies building advanced nuclear reactors around the world rely on HALEU as fuel, but the main company currently selling commercial supplies of the fuel is TENEX, part of the Russian state energy company Rosatom.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the West has sought to reduce energy imports from Russia.

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US company Centrus Energy has also begun small-scale production of the fuel and plans to expand production, while France’s Orano is considering building a plant in the US.

HALEU is enriched to 20%, rather than the 5% uranium that powers most existing nuclear power plants.

Britain on Wednesday announced a competition for contracts worth up to 600 million pounds to build the world’s first commercially viable prototype fusion power station to be connected to the grid by 2040.

Scientists, governments and companies around the world, including in the United States and Japan, have been trying for years to harness nuclear fusion — the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun — to produce large amounts of long-range emission-free electricity. Live radioactive waste is generated. ($1 = 0.7964 pounds) (Reporting by Susanna Twidale, Editing by Marguerite Choi)