UK to rival Russia with £196m advanced nuclear fuels plant at Urenco site in Cheshire

Article by Adam Duckett

THE UK government is awarding £196m (US$244m) to Urenco to build a uranium enrichment facility in Cheshire that will help produce fuel for advanced nuclear reactors in a bid to ease security concerns about supplies from Russia.

The funding is part of a £300m pledge the government made in January to support the production of what is known as high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU).

Most nuclear reactors operating today are light water reactors that use fuel enriched to contain 2–5% of the uranium-235 isotopes needed for the fission process. This uranium-235 is concentrated using centrifuges. This existing technology can be used to enrich fuels even further to 5–20%, producing HALEU fuel which allows for longer operating cycles, smaller reactors, and the production of less radioactive waste.

Presently, only Russia and China have the facilities to produce HALEU at scale. The UK government is keen to shore up its own supplies and step into a market for advanced fuels that it expects to be worth several billion pounds by 2040.

Claire Coutinho, UK  secretary of state for energy security and net zero, said: “Backing Urenco to build a uranium enrichment plant here in the UK will mean we are the first European nation outside Russia to produce advanced nuclear fuel. This will support hundreds of new jobs, bring investment for the people in Cheshire and is a huge win for energy security at home and abroad.”

The new facility will be built at Urenco’s existing site in Capenhurst where it operates three enrichment plants. The new facility is expected to support around 400 highly skilled jobs and produce up to 10 t/y of HALEU by 2031. According to government estimates, when fabricated into fuel, this HALEU could produce as much energy as more than 1m t of coal.

Boris Schucht, CEO of Urenco, said: “We welcome this government investment, which will help accelerate the development of a civil HALEU commercial market and, in turn, the development of the next generation of nuclear power plants.”

These advanced fuels are needed for the smaller novel reactors at the heart of the government's plan to almost quadruple nuclear power output by 2050.

The government says that the £104m remaining from its HALEU programme will be allocated later this year to support so-called deconversion capability, which involves processing the enriched uranium back into powder form so it can be fabricated into fuel. The government said in January that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is progressing with decommissioning activities at the Springfields fuel fabrication site in Lancashire to make space for new HALEU capabilities.

The use of advanced nuclear reactors could also be a boon for heavy industry as their high heat output could produce low-carbon steam for heavy industry processes. This could help reduce fossil fuel use in refining and hydrogen production as well as desalination processes. In 2022, Dow announced plans to use advanced nuclear to fuel its US chemicals complex and earlier this year a consortium in the UK began assessing how UK manufacturing might be used to support the construction of a fleet of advanced reactors that could help decarbonise heavy industry around Teesside.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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