Belgium, Engie agree on plant extensions; Oklo to go public

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Doel nuclear power plant in Belgium (Source: Reuters/Yves Herman)

French utility Engie has signed an intermediate accord with the Belgium government defining the terms for the life extension of the Doel 4 and Tihange 3 nuclear reactors, the company said in a statement.

The accord amounts to a U-turn for the Belgium government, which had aimed to phase out its last five nuclear reactors by 2025, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatened energy supplies in the country.

Plans to close all its reactors, which generate around half of Belgium’s electricity supply, were delayed in March 2022 by ten years with the country’s two newest reactors, Doel 4 and Tihange 3, permitted to remain operating until 2035.

The two parties agree to restart the two units, which have been temporarily halted, as early as November 2026, “with the aim to strengthen the security of supply in Belgium,” Engie said.

The accord includes the establishment of a legal structure aligning the interests of Engie and the Belgian government, a business model of the extension with balanced risk allocation through a contract for difference mechanism, and an agreement on the fixed amount of future costs related to nuclear waste.

“After several months of intense and constructive dialogue with the Belgium government, we are pleased with the signing of this balanced agreement for both parties,” said Engie CEO Catherine MacGregor.

“It provides Engie with the necessary visibility on the total amount related to nuclear waste management and significantly reduces the risks linked to the extension of the two units.”

Oklo to go public

Microreactor developer and nuclear fuel recycling company Oklo will list on the New York Stock Exchange after reaching a agreement with AltC Acquisition Corp, a special purpose acquisition company, the group said.

The transaction values Oklo at a pre-money equity value of $850 million and is expected to deliver up to $500 million in gross capital with net proceeds going to accelerate Oklo’s business plan and fund the deployment of its Aurora powerhouse, it said.

AltC was co-founded by Sam Altman, founder of artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT company Open AI and Chairman of Oklo since 2015, and Churchill Capital in 2021.

“I am thrilled to announce this partnership that provides the opportunity for AltC’s shareholders to become investors in Oklo and fund the first deployment of the Aurora powerhouse,” Altman said a statement.

“I think the two most important inputs to a great future are abundant intelligence and abundant energy. I have long been interested in the potential that nuclear energy offers to provide clean, reliable, and affordable energy at great scale.”

Oklo is the best positioned player to pursue commercialization of advanced fission energy solutions, as it is underpinned by demonstrated technology and has a design approach that is expected to reduce plant complexity, costs, and construction time, allowing for streamlined deployment, he said.

The deal is expected to close in late 2023 or early 2024.

US, Canada produce joint TRISO report

The U.S.’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) have produced a joint report which lays out a common regulatory position on the use of tristructural isotropic (TRISO) fuels in the licensing of advanced reactors.

The joint memorandum of cooperation (MoC) is intended to supplement and strengthen the existing memorandum of understanding between the two parties signed in August of 2017.

“CNSC-U.S. NRC cooperation provides opportunities for both agencies to share scientific information about technical matters that could support more efficient reviews of small modular reactors and advanced reactor technologies,” the two regulators said in the MoC.

TRISO fuel comes in poppy-seed-sized particles made up of a uranium, carbon, and oxygen fuel kernel encapsulated by three layers of carbon- and ceramic-based materials that prevent the release of radioactive fission products.

The report is part of the regulators’ efforts to establish a common regulatory position on TRISO fuel qualification based on existing knowledge and to identify any potential analytical or testing gaps that would need to be addressed to enable TRISO use in advanced reactor licensing applications, the regulators said in the report.

Reactor vendors such as X-Energy and Kairos Power, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense, are planning to use TRISO fuel for their reactor designs.

Uranium spending surges

Uranium spending rose by 60% in 2022 compared to a year earlier due to renewed interest in nuclear power, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) ‘Critical Minerals Market Review 2023’.

The increase in interest came after the invasion of Ukraine left many countries scrambling to rethink domestic energy strategies following a shortage of Russian fossil fuel supplies, and as nuclear-powered countries stockpiled uranium, much of which is traditionally supplied by Russia, for their own reactors.

Russia has been a significant supplier in the nuclear fuel market since, while it only supplies around 5% of global uranium oxide, it plays a key role in the supply chain due to conversion and enrichment plants.

Uranium from Kazakhstan, the world’s largest producer, traditionally passes through Russia for conversion and enrichment though this supply chain has been destabilized by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Against this backdrop, a number of projects could potentially expand production, notably sites in Canada, Kazakhstan and the United States that have been idled due to low prices,” the report said, adding that the United States has begun uranium purchase on the open market to support its strategic uranium reserve.

“In the longer term, overall uranium requirements for the global nuclear reactor fleet is expected to grow, but the precise magnitude of this growth is uncertain. At the low end of growth expectations, existing and committed production may be sufficient to meet demand up to 2030 – at the higher end, additional projects would likely be needed,” the report said.

By Reuters Events Nuclear