Oklo, Centrus eye creation of nuclear fuel hub

An agreement between advanced fission technology start-up Oklo and nuclear fuels and services provider Centrus Energy shows how sector synergies could keep costs down when scaling infrastructure for the U.S.’s first nuclear fuel hub.

Preparing to lift centrifuge from transport cart and install in HALEU cascade. (Source: Centrus)

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Oklo’s Aurora Powerhouses will provide the power needed to run the hub while Centrus produces the advanced nuclear fuel the reactor needs to run, according to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) the two companies signed late August.

The MoU includes a range of collaboration programs and follows a Letter of Intent signed in 2021 to cooperate in the development of a HALEU fuel facility.

Centrus will also manufacture components for Oklo’s reactors at its facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, establish and license the capabilities necessary to de-convert High-Assay, Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) from uranium hexafluoride (UF6) to uranium metal, and produce HALEU for Oklo’s small modular reactors (SMRs).  

Centrus, already picked by the Department of Energy (DOE) to build the U.S.’s first commercial HALEU supply chain, saw Oklo as a perfect fit for the work at the American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio.  

“Oklo is an exciting company with a compelling business model. Their technology has a huge range of applications for heat and power,” says Centrus CEO Dan Poneman.  

“We have a robust dialogue going back six or seven years with them and we share an interest in building Southern Ohio into a real nuclear hub … (the agreement) is multifaceted and very complimentary.” 

Oklo, meanwhile, says the accord aligns well with its own business model; the company will build and operate its fast reactors, which are scalable plants producing up to 15MWe on both recycled nuclear fuel and fresh fuel, and sell the electricity directly to customers without a utility intermediate. 

Depending on market demand, Oklo is targeting to build 15 MWe as well as 50 MWe size power plants.

The Nuclear Fuel Report's Reference Scenario for Supply and Demand

(Click to enlarge) 

Source: World Nuclear Association's The Nuclear Fuel Report - Global Scenarios for Demand and Supply Availability 2023-2040

Project costs

The project cost for the 15 MWe plant for Piketon and other near-term deployments is expected to be below $60 million, Oklo says.  

The California-based startup plans to sign a long-term power purchase agreement (PPA) to sell electricity to Centrus, though final details are still to be made public.  

“(The agreement) signals the significant market demand for our business model of selling power directly to customers, offering the flexibility to purchase clean, reliable power,” says Bonita Chester, Director of Communications and Media at Oklo. 

Oklo announced in May that it would build its second and third commercial plants at the site after they signed an agreement with Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative (SODI).

Its first commercial plant will be deployed in Idaho, where Oklo has been awarded a site use permit from the DOE and fuel from Idaho National Laboratory.

Centrus is not Oklo’s only potential customer in the state.   

“We also anticipate other off-takers in Ohio. We have a robust pipeline of potential customer engagement across a number of industries and regions and signed non-binding indications of interest from customers to build over 50 power plants, representing the opportunity for over 700 MWe of clean energy,” Chester says.  

Separately, the Department of the Air Force, issued a Notice of Intent to Award a 30-year, firm-fixed-price contract to Oklo to supply power via a reactor expected to be operational by the end of 2027.  

Starting early 

Centrus, meanwhile, was granted $150 million cost-shared award by the DOE in 2022 to demonstrate the ability to produce HALEU, marking the first U.S.-owned uranium enrichment plant to begin production since 1954, by the end of this year.  

The company announced in September that it would, in fact, be in production by October.

The around two-month jump on output will be welcome news for next generation reactor developers.  

Nine out of the ten advanced reactor designs selected for funding under the U.S. government’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) will require advanced fuel such as HALEU and TRIstructural-ISOtropic (TRISO) particles, but there are no commercial suppliers of such fuels currently operating in the United States. 

As developers move closer to deploying advanced reactors, the need for HALEU is expected to increase sharply.  

The U.S. market’s demand for HALEU will exceed 40 metric tons a year by 2030, according to the DOE, with more required each year.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the need to reign in domestic production has become critical.  

The Piketon program is expected to demonstrate production of 20 kg of 19.75% enriched HALEU before the end of the year, and then plans to produce 900 kg of HALEU a year, subject to appropriations.  

There is political agreement that this program must be supported, with an almost un-thinkable bipartisan 93-3 vote in the U.S. Senate in July for an amendment introduced as the Nuclear Fuel Security Act of 2023.  

The act aims to strengthen nuclear fuel production and ensure the use of uranium which is produced, converted, enriched, deconverted, and reduced in the United States or an ally or partner of the United States.  

Room for expansion 

The opportunities offered by the program to expand, for both Centrus and Oklo, are enormous.  

“The bigger it gets, the better it is, in terms of unit economics,” says Poneman.  

“Since the world collectively needs to at least double or triple the nuclear fleet between now and 2050, to meet climate targets, this is a very powerful driver for more attractive economics for enriched uranium.” 

With sufficient funding, a full-scale cascade consisting of 120 centrifuge machines with a combined capacity to produce around 6 metric ton of uranium (MTU) of HALEU per year, could be brought online within about 42 months, with an additional cascade added every six months after that, Centrus says.    

Oklo, meanwhile, is working hard to move its Aurora Powerhouse though the regulatory process.  

In January 2022, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) denied Oklo’s Combined License Application which was the first for an advanced non-Light Water Reactor (LWR) to be accepted for NRC review and the first privately funded application for a commercial advanced reactor.  

Part of the licensing complications was due to the COVID pandemic, but since the denial, Oklo has been working closely with the NRC with an expanded regulatory team.  

The company expects to go online with its first commercial plant in Idaho in 2026 or 2027.  

“Part of our Centrus partnership is aimed at accelerating timelines as much as reasonably possible,” says Chester. 

By Paul Day