A Wyoming nuclear power plant has been delayed by at least two years because of a shortage of special fuel which is only available from Russia.

TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, said a 345MW nuclear demonstration plant to be built in Kemmerer, Wyoming, would be delayed because of difficulty in getting the enriched uranium fuel it needs. The plant is backed by the US Department of Energy (DOE).

terrapower nuclear plant wyoming.webp
– TerraPower

The delays add to an already somewhat-distant date for the project, which was already not due to open till 2028.

TerraPower is due to begin construction during 2023, however the site still has a working coal-fired power station that is not due to shut down till 2025.

TerraPower is one of a number of companies proposing small, modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) as a clean energy technology to displace fossil fuels. The problem is that small reactors tend to require higher-density fuel - uranium which has been enriched to contain a higher percentage of U-235, the isotope which can take part in fission reactions. This fuel can currently only be sourced from Russia.

Nuclear reactors generally use low-enriched uranium, with less than 20 percent U-235 - and most can run with fuel containing less than five percent U-235. TerraPower, and some other SMR proponents, require "high-assay low-enriched uranium" (HALEU) fuel, at the high end of that spectrum with close to 20 percent fissile material.

Both the US-based NuScale, and the UK's Rolls-Royce can operate with normal LEU.

Russia has a monopoly on HALEU production, although the US is making efforts to break that, with an urgent project "downblending," or diluting some weapons-grade uranium, that has more than 80 percent of the fissionable isotope, to produce HALEU.

Another DOE-backed company, Centrus Energy, has a license to enrich uranium to HALEU levels at a plant in Piketon Ohio, but is a couple of years from delivering fuel.

"Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused the only commercial source of HALEU fuel to no longer be a viable part of the supply chain for TerraPower, as well as for others in our industry," TerraPower.CEO Chris Levesque said, in an announcement reported by Wyoming Public Radio and others. "TerraPower is anticipating a minimum of a two-year delay to being able to bring the Natrium reactor into operation," he said.

Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso responded with a call for the US to become independent in HALEU: “TerraPower’s announcement underscores what I’ve been saying for years: America must reestablish itself as the global leader in nuclear energy. Instead of relying on our adversaries like Russia for uranium, the United States must produce its own supply of advanced nuclear fuel."

Barrasso has introduced a bill to expand HALEU production in the US. He added: "The Biden administration must consider and implement every available option to make sure TerraPower’s Natrium reactor is fueled with American-made fuel.”

Get a monthly roundup of Sustainability news, direct to your inbox.