Britain to build Europe’s first next generation nuclear fuel facility

FILE PHOTO: Oral Questions for the Department for Energy Security and Net ZeroOral Questions for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero

By Susanna Twidale

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is investing almost 200 million pounds ($251.14 million) to build Europe’s first facility to produce high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU), a fuel it says will be needed to power the next generation of nuclear energy projects, the government said on Wednesday.

As part of efforts to meet climate targets and boost energy security, Britain is seeking to increase its nuclear power capacity by 2050 to 24 gigawatts, equivalent to about a quarter of projected electricity demand, from about 14% today. It hopes to build new advanced reactors which could need the HALEU fuel.

“As we see more advanced modular reactors coming onstream, HALEU will be the fuel that will be required so having more of that technology in the UK will mean we are able to supply them from a domestic source,” Andrew Bowie, Britain's minister for nuclear and renewables said in an interview.

Britain is awarding uranium enrichment firm Urenco 196 million pounds to build the facility in Cheshire, Northwest England, which will support around 400 jobs. It will be ready to produce the fuel by 2031 to be used domestically or exported, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said.

“There are obviously opportunities to export this fuel to our allies who themselves want to wean themselves away from an over reliance on Russia for their nuclear fuel,” Bowie said.

Many firms globally developing advanced nuclear reactors are relying on HALEU to fuel them but the main company currently selling commercial shipments of the fuel is TENEX, part of Russia's state-owned energy company Rosatom.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the west has been seeking to reduce its energy imports from Russia.

U.S. firm Centrus Energy has also begun producing small amounts of the fuel and expects to scale up production while France's Orano is considering building a facility in the U.S.

HALEU is enriched to levels of up to 20%, rather than around 5% for the uranium that powers most existing nuclear plants.

Britain also on Wednesday announced a competition for up to 600 million pounds in contracts to build the world’s first commercially viable fusion power station prototype which it hopes to have connected to the power grid by 2040.

Scientists, governments and companies globally, including in the U.S. and Japan, have been trying for years to harness fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the sun, to produce emission-free electricity that does not create large amounts of long-lasting radioactive waste.

($1 = 0.7964 pounds)

(Reporting By Susanna Twidale; Editing by Marguerita Choy)