GE's Growing Castle Hayne Plant Gets OK To Process Higher Enrichment Fuel

By Emma Dill, posted Mar 1, 2024
A $200 million project, the Natrium Fuel Facility on GE's Castle Hayne campus is a project by Global Nuclear Fuel and TerraPower. (Courtesy of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy)
GE Vernova announced last month that its Global Nuclear Fuel facility in Castle Hayne secured regulatory approval to handle fuel with higher enrichment levels.

The approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows the facility to “manufacture, ship and analyze the performance of” fuel with uranium-235 enrichments up to 8 weight percent, according to a company news release issued in mid-February. Before the latest approval, the facility was limited to processing uranium enriched at up to 5 weight percent.

“The significance of this approval is that it positions us to broaden our product offering and be ready to serve the industry with advanced fuel products,” according to Jon Allen, a spokesperson for GE Vernova.

The company has been working toward this latest approval for about four years. It makes the Castle Hayne campus the first commercial facility in the U.S. to hold a license to fabricate fuel enrichments up to 8 weight percent, according to the company’s release.

“These regulatory milestones build on our long history of designing and fabricating fuel for the nuclear industry,” Mike Chilton, Global Nuclear Fuel’s executive vice president stated in the release. “We will continue to innovate to help our customers run their plants even more efficiently and be ready to support the next generation of reactor technology with reliable, flexible fuel products as the industry progresses to the use of higher enrichments.”

Today, 5 weight percent is the maximum level of enrichment used in traditional power reactors, but those in the nuclear industry are increasingly interested in using higher enrichment levels, according to Allen.

The higher enrichment fuels are expected to improve “nuclear fuel cycle economics,” according to the company’s release, through power uprates for existing boiling water reactors and for “the next generation of reactor technology, including advanced and small modular reactors.”

The approval amends the company’s fuel fabrication license. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has also issued a certificate of compliance that allows Global Nuclear Fuel to ship nuclear fuel bundles with up to 8 percent weight with the company’s RAJ-II shipping containers, the company’s release states.

In 2022, the company announced its plans to expand operations at its campus at 3901 Castle Hayne Road by adding nearly 500 jobs with an average salary of $131,000 over the next five years. Last year alone, the company hired about 200 new employees to support its ongoing growth.

Global Nuclear Fuel and TerraPower, a Bill Gates-founded nuclear innovation company, announced an agreement to build the Natrium Fuel Facility at the Castle Hayne plant in 2022.

The $200 million facility will be jointly funded by TerraPower and the U.S. Department of Energy through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, officials said at the time. The program aims to speed the demonstration of advanced reactors through cost-shared partnerships with U.S. industry.

The project’s timing has been adjusted to align with when fuel for the first Natrium demonstration plant will be needed, Allen wrote in an email to the Business Journal. 

Construction of the Natrium fuel facility is set to begin in 2026 with the demonstration plant expected to begin commercial operations in 2030.
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