Oklo, a 22-person Silicon Valley startup headed by Jacob DeWitte and Caroline Cochran, has just entered into a new public-private partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The goal of this partnership? To enable the commercialization of advanced fuel recycling capabilities by utilizing electrorefining technology.
This goal is the same as the one held by both DeWitte and Cochran ever since they met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Reactor Technology Course in 2009. Even then, they envisioned a future where nuclear energy is more efficient and deployable. Now, in 2021, Oklo is improving nuclear technology to deploy better micro-nuclear reactors, which will be “powered by the waste of conventional nuclear reactors and housed in aesthetically pleasing A-frame structures.”
One of the key developments needed to achieve this goal is deploying advanced reactors, in particular plants that are building on fast reactor technology which has decades of operational experience. Fast reactors have the capability to recycle used fuel. This is where the Department of Energy and national laboratories can play the right role in enabling commercial opportunities and help bring next-generation fission to market.
What does this partnership mean?
DOE and Oklo are partnering together to cost-share to fund Argonne National Laboratory to perform this work. This funding comes from the Technology Commercialization Fund and will go toward commercializing advanced fuel recycling and fabrication capabilities.
Speaking about the partnership, Caroline Cochran, co-founder, and COO of Oklo, stated:
“We are proud to be selected to accelerate the commercialization of advanced fuel recycling and development and bring clean power to market quickly and cost-effectively…When your fuel is millions of times more energy-dense than alternatives, that’s a key enabler to deliver the cheapest forms of clean power available to humanity.”
DeWitte agreed and added: “The award showcases the DOE’s priority to support the private sector in bringing next-generation fission to market.”
This partnership is not the first time Oklo has worked with the Department of Energy. In 2020, the Idaho National Laboratory announced that it was working with Oklo, giving them access to recovered spent nuclear fuel so that the company could power Oklo’s first plant for 20 years without needing a refuel.
How would this make an impact on the nuclear industry?
Creating more deployable, scalable, and efficient nuclear reactors is not a new discussion, nor one unique to Oklo. Whatever the name – mini-reactors, micro-reactors, advanced small modular reactors, etc. – it has become apparent that this innovation is the best step forward for building up the future of nuclear. “Microreactors are an exciting innovation that completely flips the technology story for nuclear energy,” explained Alex Gilbert, project manager for nuclear power think tank the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.
As America seeks to decarbonize its power grid, innovation, not just government action, is essential when working toward the expansion of nuclear power. This public-private partnership between the Department of Energy and Oklo is a terrific example of government action that empowers, not hinders, private sector innovation.
Kelvey Vander Hart is a native Iowan and a senior staff writer for the American Conservation Coalition.