Oklo’s diverse order book demonstrates small reactor potential

Oklo’s Aurora powerhouse will likely be one of, if not the, first small modular reactor (SMR) to deploy in North America and has already built up a diverse order book.

An artist's rendition of Oklo's Aurora powerhouse (Source: Oklo)

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Like other first-of-a-kind nuclear reactor developers, however, licensing and fuel supply remain potential bottlenecks as Oklo looks to begin operations in 2027 at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL).  

Oklo, which went public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) May 10, is developing scalable nuclear power plants ranging from 15 MWe to 50 MWe based on liquid metal reactor technology that can run on both fresh and recycled fuel.

The company plans to build a commercial-scale fuel recycling facility in the United States by the early 2030s and has been selected by the Department of Energy (DOE) for four cost-share awards to potentially commercialize advanced recycling technologies.

The plan to start its first commercial power plant at INL, the country’s leading nuclear laboratory, after securing a site use permit from the DOE and a fuel award from INL has helped as it works toward that timeline, says Oklo co-founder and CEO Jacob DeWitte.   

“We've tried to design and approach this whole thing in a way that we can get it built as soon as reasonably possible … having the capitalization and the fuel on the site really helps with that,” says DeWitte.

The Aurora powerhouse will cost around $70 million for the 15 MW version, with power costs of somewhere between $80-$130/MWh, depending on the use and location, DeWitte says.

Such levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) would put the reactor on a similar price scale as peaking gas-fired plants and offshore wind, according to analysis by Lazard, though with the added flexibility of a generator that can be shipped and assembled in less than a year and with a considerbly smaller footprint.

Diverse portfolio

The company has signed an agreement with Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative at the DOE Piketon Site for its second and third commercial plants, and has non-binding indications of interest to build more than 50 powerhouses, with a total capacity of over 700 MWe.

In May, Oklo formed a strategic partnership with Atomic Alchemy to produce medical isotopes from its recycling process for cancer treatment and diagnostic imaging, as well as signing a non-binding letter of intent (LOI) with Wyoming Hyperscale to collaborate on a 20-year Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to supply 100 MW to its data center campus.

Meanwhile, in April, Oklo signed a non-binding LOI to collaborate on another 20-year PPA with Diamondback Energy to supply power to its shale-oil operations in the Permian Basin.

“We're excited about the diversity of customers, because it shows that our size and business model clearly match with what customers are interested in,” says DeWitte.

The business model to sell power, rather than reactors, while at the same time being flexible on the size and scale-up potential makes the Aurora especially attractive to customers that are unsure about their own scale-up potential, such as with data centers, he says.

“They're not starting overnight with a facility that's using that much power, but they typically build into that, and they want to have that n+1 or n+2 dynamic build up with them,” says DeWitte.

“You can't really do that if you're building a 300 MW reactor, but you can do that with what we're doing and that adds a lot of value.”

The expected expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) systems and data centers, both of which need always-on, high capacity generators to run, makes the powerhouse an especially interesting proposition.

The listing followed the completion of a business combination with AltC Acquisition Corp, formally resided over by Sam Altman, now the Oklo Chairman and CEO of OpenAI, the developer of ChatGPT.

Future AI will need vastly more power than originally expected and will require an energy breakthrough, Altman said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos earlier this year.   

In 2021, Altman invested $375 million into nuclear fusion company Helion Energy which has since agreed to provide Microsoft energy, however fusion energy remains in its infancy and is potentially decades away from deployment.

Full potential of nuclear contributions to net zero

(Click to enlarge) 

Source: The OECD-NEA study, "The NEA Small Modular Reactor Dashboard"

Regulatory hurdles

Oklo’s compact fast reactor was denied a combined construction and operation license application (COLA) – the first such application for an advanced non-light water reactor – by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2022, though it is now preparing a pre-application readiness assessment.

“It’s a kind of dress rehearsal review of our application … I think we always want to see things move more quickly, but we feel good about where things are and where they’re going,” DeWitte says.

The original review in 2019, built around the novel COLA structure and coupled with changes at the NRC which were building on a new, in-person audit review process, were significantly waylaid by the COVID pandemic, DeWitte says.

The ADVANCE act, meanwhile, passed by the U.S. Senate in June, will enable quicker licensing, help mobilize the fuel supply chain and workforce, and benefit Oklo’s reactor and fuel fabrication business by reducing fees, reducing licensing timelines and providing cash prize incentives, Oklo said in a statement.

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More fuel

Oklo will begin operations using recovered material from used nuclear fuel from INL, however the company faces similar supply chain restrictions for high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) as its competitors after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cut off the only commercially available source.

Centrus Energy Corp. and Oklo signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2023 to support advanced nuclear fuel production in Southern Ohio following a LOI in 2021 to develop HALEU fuel facilities.

Under the accords, Centrus will supply HALEU from its Piketon, Ohio facility, while Oklo will supply power for Centrus' centrifuges from its Ohio plants.

However, with HALEU in short supply and many of the new, incoming, advanced reactors designed to run on the fuel, DeWitte fears there may be a supply bottleneck.

“We do we need more, and we need it faster,” DeWitte says.

The U.S. President Joe Biden in May signed the ‘Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act’ banning imports from Russia and releasing $2.7 billion in government aid to rebuild the U.S. nuclear fuel industry which has been in decline since the early eighties.  

“The government's done a lot to set the stage, now they need to start executing it. Things are very constructive right now here, but the pace is the biggest challenge. I think that that needs to be realized and recognized,” he says.

By Paul Day