Oklo’s team uses a startup mindset to build novel reactors while complying with federal regulations.
All nuclear power plants operating in the United States today were built using the same general formula. For one thing, companies have made their reactors large, with hundreds of megawatts of power. They also relied heavily on funding from the federal government, which has defined many aspects of the design and development of nuclear power plants through large grants and lengthy application processes.
This landscape has had varying degrees of success over the years, but has never been particularly inviting to new businesses interested in using unique technologies.
Now the startup Oklo is breaking new ground to build innovative nuclear power plants that comply with federal safety regulations. Earlier this year, the company became the first to receive an advanced nuclear reactor application, which was accepted by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The acceptance was the culmination of a novel application process that set a number of milestones in the industry, and it has enabled Oklo to build an advanced reactor that differs in several important ways from the nuclear power plants currently operating in the country.
Conventional reactors use moderators like water to slow down neutrons before they split or split uranium and plutonium atoms. Oklo’s reactors do not use moderators, which means that much smaller facilities can be built and neutrons can be moved faster.
Faster neutrons can keep fission with a different type of fuel. Compared to conventional reactors, Oklo’s fuel source is enriched with a much higher concentration of the uranium-235 isotope, which splits more easily than the more common uranium-238. The additional amount of uranium-235 allows the Oklo reactor to run for longer periods of time without having to refuel.
Because of these differences, Oklo’s power plants will have little resemblance to conventional nuclear power plants. The company’s first reactor, named Aurora, is housed in a modest A-frame building hundreds of times smaller than traditional reactors. It runs on used fuel extracted from an experimental reactor at Idaho National Laboratory that was shut down in 1994. Oklo says the facility will run for 20 years without having to refuel during its lifetime.
But perhaps the most unique aspect of Oklo is its approach to commercialization. In many ways, the Silicon Valley-based company has developed a startup mindset that foregoes government grants to raise smaller rounds of venture capital backed funding, and iterated its drafts while moving through the application process much faster than its predecessors.
“Novelty was cheap because it lost some of the legacy sluggishness about how it was done, and I thought this was an important way to modernize the commercial approach,” said Jacob DeWitte, CEO of Oklo, SM ’11, PhD ’14. who founded the company together with Caroline Cochran SM ’10.
Now Oklo hopes his advances will encourage others to take new approaches in the nuclear power industry.
“If we can modernize the way we meet these regulations and take advantage of the benefits and features of these next-generation designs, we can paint a whole new picture here,” says DeWitte.
Take a new path
DeWitte came to WITH in 2008 and studied advanced reactors while working for his masters degree. For his doctorate, he considered how the service life and performance of the large reactors already in use around the world could be extended.
As DeWitte studied today’s large reactors, he was increasingly drawn to the idea of commercializing tomorrow’s small reactors.
“At MIT, through the projects and extracurricular activities, I learned more about how the energy ecosystem works, how the startup model works, how the venture finance model works, and with all these different pieces I started to formulate the idea that germinated Oklo, ”says DeWitte.
What DeWitte learned about the nuclear power landscape wasn’t particularly encouraging for startups. The industry is plagued by plant engineering stories that last a decade or more, with cost overruns in the billions.
In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sets design standards for reactors and issues guidelines for compliance with these standards. However, the guidelines were designed for the large reactors that have been in the industry for more than 50 years, and so are poorly suited for companies interested in building smaller reactors based on different technologies.
DeWitte began thinking about starting a progressive nuclear company as a PhD student. In 2013 he partnered with Cochran and other MIT staff. The team competed in the MIT $ 100K Entrepreneurship Competition and the MIT Clean Energy Prize, where Oklo received early feedback and validation, including winning the $ 100K Energy Track.
Oklo’s reactor design has changed significantly over the years, as DeWitte and Cochran – the only co-founders who stayed with the company – worked first with consultants at MIT, then with industry experts, and finally with representatives from the NRC.
“The idea was if we were to use this technology to start small and use an iterative approach to technology development and a product-centric approach, similar to what Tesla did with the roadster [electric car model] before you switch to others, ”says DeWitte. “That seemed to be an interesting way to get initial validation points and could be done at a higher cost efficiency, so that less cash was needed and this could gradually fit into the venture capital financing model.”
Oklo raised small rounds of funding in 2013 and 2014 as the company went through the launch accelerators MassChallenge and Y Combinator.
In 2016, the Department of Energy (DOE) carried out some of its own innovations, making industry-leading efforts to develop new licensing procedures for advanced nuclear reactor applications. Two years later, Oklo piloted the new structure. The process resulted in Oklo developing a novel application and being the first company to receive a combined license application to build a power plant accepted by the NRC since 2009.
“We had to look at the regulations with a new eye, not by distorting everything that was done in the past,” says DeWitte. “In other words, we had to find more efficient ways to comply.”
Setting a good example
Oklo’s first reactor will produce 1.5 megawatts of electrical energy, although later versions of the company’s reactor could produce much more.
The company’s first reactor will also use a unique uranium fuel source provided by the Idaho National Laboratory. Natural uranium consists of more than 99 percent uranium-238 and about 0.7 percent uranium-235. In conventional nuclear reactors, uranium is enriched with up to 5 percent uranium-235. The uranium fuel in Oklo’s reactors is enriched with 5 to 20 percent uranium-235.
Since Oklo’s reactors can run for years without refueling, DeWitte says they are particularly well suited for remote areas where environmentally harmful diesel fuel is often required.
Oklo hasn’t settled on an exact schedule for its construction, but the co-founders have announced that the reactor will be operational in the early 2020s. DeWitte says it will serve as a proof of concept. Oklo is already talking to potential customers about additional systems.
DeWitte said later versions of its systems could run 40 years or more without having to refuel.
For now, however, DeWitte hopes that Oklo’s advances can inspire the industry to rethink the way new technologies are brought to market.
“[Oklo’s progress] opens the door to say that nuclear innovation is alive and well, ”says DeWitte. “And it’s not just the technology, it’s the whole stack: it’s technology, regulations, manufacturing, business models, funding models, etc. So it’s really important to hit these milestones and do it in unprecedented ways because it shows that there are such more avenues for bringing nuclear power plants to market. ”