For many, many years now, we have endeavoured on this blog to help the public understand the value of uranium-233 and the unique advantage that the United States possesses with their U-233 inventory. But for just as long, we have lamented that the Department of Energy is bent on the destruction of this valuable material. The Office of Nuclear Energy made a determination back in the 1990s that they didn’t see any value for U-233 in their future programs. They’ve never asked industry whether they saw a value for it, and they’ve never reconsidered this bad decision. But it set in motion a series of events that we are still attempting to undo.
Once DOE-NE said U-233 was “no-good”, the problem got turned over to the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, the “garbage-men” of DOE. And they have been working extremely slowly and at titanic expense ever since to destroy the U-233 in an irreversible way called “downblending,” which involves mixing the U-233 with natural U-238 until the U-233 is at very very low concentrations in the “downblended” material. Once this downblending is completed, they plan to dispose of the material in Nevada.
Now, here’s the thing: downblending U-233 doesn’t change its radiological characteristics at all. It’s still got a 160,000-year half-life, and will continue to decay for the next few million years. But downblending does make U-233 worthless for any use in a thorium reactor such as the LFTR. And that is no accident. That’s what they *want* to happen. The DOE is intentionally closing the door forever on a straightforward restart of thorium reactor development in the United States. It is nothing less than a crime against our future.
The hypocrisy of the DOE position is called into even-sharper contrast by their determination to go forward with their strategy for “high-assay, low-enriched uranium” or HALEU. This is uranium enriched to 20% that is needed for the fast reactors and TRISO-fueled reactors that DOE chose for their Advanced Reactor Development Program. In the solicitation for that project, DOE-NE assured developers that HALEU would be available, but many of us were skeptical, because we knew that the only commercial source for HALEU was Russia. That was back in 2020. Now Russia is at war with Ukraine and Russian HALEU is off-the-table permanently.
Logically, one would think that that would be a really good time to go back and revisit the decision to destroy uranium-233! But no, that is not what is happening at DOE. They are more determined than ever to destroy this valuable material, even though U-233 alone can open up the potential of thorium reactors that could produce sustainable energy from thorium without producing long-lived transuranic waste. It is the only way to do this.
The HALEU plan that they have isn’t just bad because of Russia, it’s bad because it makes a lot more waste than even the wasteful approach to nuclear that we presently have. We have no real plan for our nuclear waste! The Yucca Mountain project, which I never favored, has been permanently abandoned by both political parties, and now the DOE casts all their hope that some community will come forward and volunteer to be the home of a geologic repository. I think the odds of that happening after fifty years of searching for it asymptotically approach zero. It’s not a plan for the future. It’s a wish multiplied by a fantasy.
Click on the “uranium-233” tag at the top of this post to review other articles on this site dating back to 2006 about this important topic.