Advanced Reactor Developer Oklo Receives Site Use Permit From Energy Department

Permit to build at Idaho National Laboratory is the first granted for a non-light water power reactor

A rendering of Oklo Inc.'s Aurora, an advanced fission power generator.(Handout photo)
December 10, 2019 at 6:30 am ET

The Energy Department has granted compact fast reactor developer Oklo Inc. a permit to build a small nuclear reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory. 

Oklo, which will announce the landmark development Tuesday, is the first non-light water power reactor design to receive a site use permit, effective for the lifetime of the plant. 

The permit is a critical milestone on the path toward deployment of Oklo’s 1.5-megawatt Aurora plant, which company co-founders Jacob DeWitte and Caroline Cochran unveiled at an invitation-only event in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 7, and later announced more widely on Dec. 2. 

That kind of event is new territory for nuclear: Oklo wanted “to channel a little bit of Apple-type vibe” and build up excitement for the plant concept, said DeWitte, Oklo’s chief executive, in an interview ahead of the permit announcement. The unveiling featured signature cocktails, each bearing a miniature copper “heat pipe” reminiscent of the Aurora’s heat transport system.

“The system itself is designed to build on the really tremendous legacy of metallic fuels that were developed in this country for decades,” DeWitte said at the event. The Aurora could generate both usable heat and electricity, run for at least 20 years on one load of fuel and operate without the need for water, DeWitte said. 

Oklo is the first company to complete the new site use permit application process, which the Energy Department’s Idaho Operations Office established about two years ago. The project is subject to environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, a process to be led by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

The site use permit comes after Oklo entered into a memorandum of understanding in 2017 with the Energy Department — something that Edward McGinnis, then principal deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Nuclear Energy, told members of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in May 2018, though he did not offer specifics at the time.

The permit was not yet available for review, but it is similar to prior issued site use permits, said Cochran, who is Oklo’s chief operating officer. 

In February 2016, the Energy Department issued a site use permit to Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which plans to own and operate NuScale Power LLC’s small modular reactor.

Building on lessons from previous permitting experiences, INL has established a more streamlined process for obtaining the site use permit, DeWitte said. 

Under the permit, which is said to be about 30 pages in length, Oklo will need to meet insurance, permitting and other requirements before construction can begin and will need to return the site to its original condition at the end, Cochran said.

While the company previously had a reputation for withholding specifics about its reactor design, it has recently been able to disclose more details. Oklo recently announced that it successfully demonstrated prototypes of a metallic fuel at INL for its advanced fission reactor. It is targeting the construction of a commercial unit in the early to mid-2020s at the Idaho lab.

Now that Oklo has the site use permit, it can coordinate with the NRC and the Energy Department to determine where specifically at the INL complex the reactor can be built. Cochran says the Oklo site will be roughly less than a quarter of an acre.

Congress has passed two bills since September 2018 in an effort to help the domestic advanced nuclear industry. The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act was “useful,” DeWitte said, in ensuring the right infrastructure is in place to support the commercialization of new reactors. But he says demonstration itself — a key component of the not-yet-passed Nuclear Energy Leadership Act — is an insufficient goal for nuclear developers to target. 

“The goal is to build dozens, hundreds, thousands total,” DeWitte said. To that end, Oklo has been clear that it is not as excited about congressional legislation that narrowly focuses on demonstration. “That’s not the end step,” DeWitte added.

The advanced nuclear industry at large is urging Congress to authorize and fund federal demonstrations of advanced reactors and to make available more high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel, for instance. But the C-suite at Oklo, which is solely venture-funded and backed primarily by U.S.-based investors, draws a distinction between collaborating with the government and relying primarily on federal funding for support. 

When appropriate — such as through providing expertise, land and cross-cutting infrastructure development — federal funding can be useful, DeWitte said, noting that Oklo might consider opportunities for direct federal funding down the road. However, “I’m not asking the taxpayer to subsidize the design work that I need to do,” he added. “We’ve been able to do a lot very capitally efficient, and that’s a paradigm shift in nuclear.”

Nuclear energy companies need to work with the U.S. government for parts of their development, said Cochran, who spoke positively about how the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear initiative has enabled partnerships between Oklo and the Energy Department. To date, Oklo has received three GAIN vouchers, through which the national laboratories, rather than the company, receive funding from the Energy Department to work with developers, with a cost share.

Oklo, which is also working toward other undisclosed projects in addition to the Aurora, said it intends to submit a license application to the NRC within the next few months, following pre-application talks that began with the agency in 2016.

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