Even though Congress is debating whether to continue funding the program, U.S. research is moving closer to the possibility of switching the nuclear reactor fuel aboard Navy aircraft carriers and submarines from bomb-grade uranium to a safer alternative, according to documents released on Wednesday. Since 2018, the U.S. government has been investigating ways to use low-enriched fuel that cannot be used as fissile material in weapons in order to reduce the proliferation concerns associated with maintaining stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium. According to a report submitted by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to Congress last year, the U.S. research program moved from a planning phase into a “iterative experimental campaign phase” in fiscal year 2021. The report stated that early findings indicate progress in what may be a 20- to 25-year design effort. The report was previously undisclosed until it was viewed by Reuters. The $245 billion AUKUS defense technology partnership with Australia and Britain, which calls for the sale of American nuclear-powered submarines and the sharing of nuclear-propulsion technology with Australia in response to China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, has brought increased attention to the problem of highly-enriched fuel in naval vessels.
Sending highly-enriched uranium-using submarines to Australia, according to non-proliferation specialists, might set a precedent for other nations to use the fuel. According to the NNSA report, the low-enriched uranium fuel program aims to satisfy “the stringent requirements for the power output, compact size, and long-life the U.S. Navy requires.” The report found that “initial activities are the first steps on a long, costly path to fuel development and success is not assured.” It also cited research from 2016 that indicated the development of alternative fuel may cost more than $1 billion. Low-enriched fuel would also have a detrimental influence on ship expenses, operating effectiveness, and reactor endurance, according to the prior assessment. The 2022 report issued a warning, stating that the expenses might divert attention from other important non-proliferation and naval propulsion R&D projects. However, Jill Hruby, the chief of the NNSA, expressed in the document her satisfaction with the program’s development “in this technically challenging effort.” When questioned about the documents, NNSA did not answer right away. Since 2016, the initiative has received $100 million from Congress; however, financing is now in doubt because a panel in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans, decided this year to halt it. funds has been approved by the Senate, and it is anticipated that the two houses will collaborate to determine any funds.
The materials were received from the NNSA by Alan Kuperman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, who has lobbied the government to accept low-enriched uranium for Navy boats. “These documents clarify three things for the first time: the program is vital to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, is making rapid progress, and will be implemented only if it can preserve the performance of U.S. Navy vessels,” Kuperman stated. He said the fuel’s possible $1 billion cost was insignificant in comparison to the billions of dollars the Navy had spent on its nuclear fleet. An inquiry regarding the initiative was not immediately answered by the Defense Department.