New Designs for Nuclear Reactors: Commercialization of Generation Energy Technology

Representation of the first Oklo nuclear power plant, called the Aurora, to be built at the Idaho National Laboratory. Credit: Oklor offer

Oklor’s team is using initial thinking to build new reactors while complying with federal regulations.

All nuclear power plants operating in the US today were built using the same general formula. On the one hand, the companies converted their large reactors with power measured in the hundreds of megawatts. In addition, many relied on federal government funding, which has mandated many aspects of the design and development of nuclear power plants through large grants and lengthy application processes.

This landscape has enjoyed varying degrees of success over the years, but has never been particularly inviting for new businesses interested in deploying unique technologies.

Now the launch of Oklo is paving a new path for the construction of innovative nuclear power plants that comply with federal safety regulations. Earlier this year, the company was the first to obtain an application for an advanced nuclear reactor approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The approval was the culmination of a new application process that set many milestones in the industry and Oklok has positioned itself to build an advanced reactor that is different from the nuclear power plants currently operating in the country.

Conventional reactors use moderators like water to slow neutrons before splitting, or fission, uranium, and plutonium atoms. Oklo reactors will not use moderators, allowing them to build much smaller plants and allow neutrons to move faster.

Faster-moving neutrons can hold nuclear fission with another type of fuel. Compared to traditional reactors, the Oklor fuel source will be enriched with a much higher concentration of the isotope uranium-235, which is easier to fission than ordinary uranium-238. Thanks to the uranium-235 ratio, the Oklor reactor operates for a longer period of time without the need to refuel.

As a result of these differences, Oklo power plants will bear little resemblance to conventional nuclear power plants. The company’s first reactor, called the Aurora, is housed in an A-frame building hundreds of times smaller than conventional reactors, where it will use fuel recovered from an experimental reactor at the closed Idaho National Laboratory. 1994. Oklo says the plant will last 20 years without having to provide fuel in its lifetime.

But perhaps the most unique aspect of Oklo is its focus on commercialization. In many ways, the Silicon Valley-based company has worked out its initial thinking, setting aside government subsidies to raise smaller rounds of venture capital protection and repeating its designs, moving much faster than the previous one in the application process.

“The novelty was beneficial because it shed some of the inertia about how things have been done in the past, and I thought it was an important way to modernize the business approach,” says Jacob DeWitte, SM-11 CEO, ‘11 Ph.D., ’who founded the company Caroline Cochran SM ’10 with.

Now Oklo hopes his progress will encourage others to pursue new perspectives in the nuclear power industry.

“If we modernize the way we comply with these regulations and take advantage of the advantages and features of these next-generation designs, we can start painting a new image here,” says DeWitt.

Draw a new path

DeWitte came WITH ONE In 2008 and in his master’s degree he studied advanced reactors. For his PhD, he studied ways to extend the life and power of large reactors already in use around the world.

But while DeWitt was studying today’s large reactors, he was increasingly attracted to the idea of ​​commercializing tomorrow’s small reactors.

“Through MIT, projects and extracurriculars, I learned more about how the energy ecosystem works, how the startup model works, how the risk finance model works and how to grow the seed with all these different pieces. Oklo, ”says DeWitt.

What DeWitt learned about the nuclear energy landscape was not particularly gratifying for startups. There are stories of plant construction that have taken the industry a decade or more, costing billions.

In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sets standards for reactor designs and provides guidelines for compliance with those regulations. But the orientation was created for large reactors that have been in the industry for more than 50 years, and it is less suitable to help companies interested in building smaller reactors based on different technologies.

DeWitte started thinking about creating an advanced nuclear company when he had his PhD. In 2013 he collaborated with Cochran and others at MIT, and as the team competed in the MIT $ 100K Entrepreneurship Contest and the MIT Clean Energy Award, Oklo achieved first opinion and validation, including winning a $ 100K energy track.

As the design of Oklor’s reactors changed dramatically, DeWitte and Cochran — the only founders to join the company — worked first with MIT consultants, then with industry experts, and finally with NRC officials.

“The idea was that if we took this technology, we would start small and use a repetitive approach to technology development and a product-oriented approach, like the Tesla Roadster did. [electric car model] before going to others, “DeWitt says.” It seems that this provided an interesting way to get some initial validation points and could be done more cost-effectively, so less money was needed, and that could be in line with the venture capital financing model. “

Oklo raised small rounds of funding in 2013 and 2014 when the company switched to MassChallenge and Y Combinator startup accelerators.

In 2016, the Department of Energy (DOE) undertook a number of innovations to kick-start the industry-led effort to build new approval processes for advanced nuclear reactor applications. Two years later, Oklok piloted the new structure. As a result of the process, Oklok developed a new application and became the first company to apply for a combined license to build a power plant approved by the NRC in 2009.

“We had to look at the regulations with a new eye and not with the distortion of everything that has been done in the past,” says DeWitt. “In other words, we needed to find more effective ways to comply with the regulations.”

For example the leader

Oklor’s first reactor will generate 1.5 megawatts of electricity, although the company’s reactor versions can generate much more.

The company’s first reactor will also use a single source of uranium fuel provided by the Idaho National Laboratory. Natural uranium contains 233 more uranium than 99 percent and about 0.7 percent 233. In conventional nuclear reactors, uranium is enriched to 5 percent uranium-235 percent. Uranium fuel from oklo reactors will be enriched to include 5 to 20 percent uranium-235.

Since Oklo reactors can be operated for years without supply, DeWitte says they are very suitable for remote sites based on environmentally harmful diesel fuels.

Oklo does not commit to a specific construction deadline, but the founders have said they expect the reactor to operate in the early 2020s. DeWitt says it will serve as proof of the concept. Oklo is already talking to potential customers about additional plants.

DeWitt said the latest versions of its plants could last 40 years or more without having to be refilled.

For now, however, DeWitte hopes that Oklor’s advancement can drive the industry to rethink the way it brings new technologies to market.

“[Oklo’s progress] it opens the door to say that nuclear innovation is alive, ”says DeWitt.“ And it’s not just technology, it’s a whole stack: technology, regulation, manufacturing, business models, financing models, and so on. So achieving these milestones and doing so in an unprecedented way is very significant because it shows that there really are nuclear ways to reach the market. ”

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