Navy Nuclear Reactor Boss: Highly Enriched Uranium is ‘the Way to Go’
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
ARLINGTON, Va. — The director of the Navy’s nuclear power program said that highly enriched uranium (HEU) is more advantageous for propelling nuclear-powered ships than low-enriched uranium (LEU).
“Our view is that HEU is the way to go,” Adm. James Caldwell, director of the Office of Naval Reactors, testified March 20 before the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development and Related Items subcommittee.
The Navy was asked by Congress to study the possibility of using low-enriched uranium to fuel the reactors of its nuclear-powered ships.
“In our reports to Congress, we’ve been pretty clear that the highly enriched uranium offers us significant military advantage over low-enriched uranium,” Caldwell said. “Low-enriched uranium means that you put a lot less energy in the core and therefore you would have to refuel ships more frequently. It would take those ships offline. It would cost more money. The manufacturing process for low-enriched uranium is very different from what we do today. The handling of components at end-of-life is very different.
“HEU has served us well for over 60 years,” he said. “To develop a low-enriched uranium core would take about 10 to 15 years and about a billion dollars. On top of that, it would take probably several billion [dollars] just to deliver the manufacturing, materials, [etc.] To get to an LEU-capable core would require a step change in our design. It is a significant difference from what we are using today in our cores. That’s why it takes so long and why it would cost so much.
“That said, if money was available [and] targeted for LEU development, then Reactors would continue our work an advanced fuel system and we would move along that path. We’re working on that as much as we can, but that is many decades away right now.”