An innovative nuclear plant that runs on lower waste fuel hopes to be online by 2022-2025.
The plant's creator, Oklo, joins startups around the world working to innovate safer, smaller nuclear power plants.
But experts suggest that Oklo's timeline is unrealistic with years of nuclear approval process ahead.
An experimental nuclear reactor in Idaho could be the first of its kind in the United States: a commercial reactor providing power using fuel that reduces nuclear waste. The small power plant could power about 1,000 homes and can run almost autonomously for 20 years.
This project comes from Oklo, that claims its reactor would be the “first ever” one to generate power through nuclear waste. But Oklo is just one of many groups working on ways to make localized and safer nuclear power as a bridge between the energy status quo and a more carbon neutral future.
“Every scenario presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for keeping the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, relies on nuclear providing a growing share of our electricity,” the environmental blog Grist explains.
There are a few overarching ideas these aspiring innovators share. First, much smaller nuclear reactors—whether that’s relatively small versions of “full size” commercial reactors or truly localized small reactors like Oklo’s—are inherently safer. Imagine trying to wipe up a spill of a few drops of soda versus an entire two-liter bottle. It’s also easier and cheaper to build containment for smaller reactors.
Second, many of these innovative designs want to use a new or different format of nuclear fuel in their reactions. Some are using recycled waste products, some are using chemical reactions that can generate power without reaching “critical” state—and smaller reactors in particular require a lot less fuel, which, means there’s less toxic waste.
Oklo’s plans are a combination of both. At just 1.5 megawatts, the plant would be one of the smallest plants ever build—even during the early days of nuclear energy. The smallest exigent nuclear plant in the world produces 11 megawatts, and even Russia’s new floating power plant makes over 30. But the nondescript design looks like an A-frame house and would be easy to squeeze into many more locations than operating nuclear plants.
In December, Oklo received a permit to begin building their new Aurora plant, which is the first and only permit ever issued in the U.S. to a nuclear plant using something other than a light water (“water-cooled”) reactor. The specific mix of fuel they plan to use is called HALEU for short: “High-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) [...] promises to provide more power per volume than conventional reactors, and its efficiency allows for smaller plant sizes,” Power explains. “It also promises longer core life and a higher burn-up rate of nuclear waste.”
There are big obstacles in Oklo’s way, though. Their planned timeline, which Grist says is to open between 2022 and 2025—after just receiving a permit in December 2019—would be one of the shortest in U.S. nuclear power history. For the first-of-its-kind commercial, HALEU-fueled fast breeder reactor, this seems optimistic, to say the least.
But if Oklo can breeze through the nuclear regulatory process and make a precedent for safer reactors to experience shorter approval times, that could pave the way for faster nuclear innovation—something many experts say we desperately need.
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