Advanced nuclear reactor technology firm Oklo will build its second and third commercial 15-MWe Aurora Powerhouse reactors on land owned by the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative (SODI), a community reuse organization tasked by the Department of Energy (DOE) to re-industrialize land around the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PORTS) just south of Piketon, Ohio.
Oklo on May 18 announced it signed an agreement for land on underutilized land and facilities transferred to SODI by the DOE within the Portsmouth site. The site will host two commercial 15-MWe Aurora powerhouses (a combined 30 MWe) and “over 50 MW of clean heating, with opportunities to expand,” the company told POWER. For now, the company is targeting a power production timeframe “as soon as 2028,” it said.
The plants will notably support job creation in the area, furthering SODI’s mission “to improve the quality of life for the southern Ohio community through economic diversification and the advancement of clean energy solutions,” the company said.
Part of a Major Nuclear-Oriented Land Reuse Initiative
The Portsmouth site is a nuclear enclave that sprawls across 3,700 acres of land attached to PORTS, a U.S. gaseous diffusion plant in Pike County, Ohio, that ran from 1954 to 2001 to produce enriched uranium for support the nation’s nuclear weapons program (and later, to produce enriched uranium for commercial nuclear operations). The site notably also hosts the American Centrifuge Project, where nuclear fuel firm Centrus is demonstrating the production of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) with domestic technology under a DOE contract.
While a federally led environmental cleanup program is underway at the Portsmouth site, the DOE in 2018 began transferring cleaned-up parcels of the Portsmouth site to SODI, an economic development initiative tasked with improving the quality of life for neighboring Jackson, Pike, Ross, and Scioto Counties.
So far, the DOE has transferred 300 acres of federally owned land to the organization, Steve Shepherd, SODI executive director, told POWER on Thursday. “This property is huge for us to re-industrialize, and we have been working for many years to basically develop this as an energy product,” he noted.
Decommissioning giant Orano recently suggested that a 2017 report compiled by the Next Generation Nuclear Plant Alliance for the DOE “identified the Portsmouth Site as the most suitable site in the U.S. for industrial advanced reactor deployment,” given that the site presents a “significantly reduced time and cost for [Nuclear Regulator Commission (NRC)] licensing of a Generation IV reactor.” The site already hosts existing infrastructure—a prospect that could shave more than $1 billion for new nuclear development—it has a supportive and trained nuclear workforce, and it has federal backing from the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management and Office of Nuclear Energy for reuse, the company noted.
In 2019, backed by EPRI, Southern Nuclear Development, Orano, Idaho National Laboratory (INL), and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), SODI assembled a team to kick off a $12 million proposed project to support the deployment of advanced reactor technology at the Portsmouth Site in the 2028 to 2033 timeframe. In April 2020, the DOE awarded the Waverly, Ohio-based organization $5 million under a DOE’s Advanced Reactor funding opportunity to begin developing an early site permit (ESP) template that would “envelope a broad range of advanced reactor technologies potentially supporting the DOE goal of demonstrating an advanced reactor by the late 2020s.”
According to Shepherd, while discussions are ongoing with other prospective energy developers, the land use agreement with Oklo marks a pivotal milestone for SODI’s ambitions to develop a “clean energy park,” which it has pursued for nearly two decades. “So this is an exciting day to get this announcement, and it marks the huge start of an energy park that will allow us to make our dreams come true,” he said.
SODI expects that as cleanup at the Portsmouth site progresses, it will have more tracts of land to work with. That could eventually allow the community reuse organization—one of several around the nation—to add more “pieces” to the clean energy park. Prospects may include high-heat sources for industrial applications, including hydrogen production, and small modular reactor component manufacturing, Shepherd said.
“We may not ever get back the entire 3,700 acres, but as much as we can get, we will try to re-industrialize and create jobs,” he said.
A Lucrative Opportunity for Oklo’s Nuclear Expansion
For Santa Clara, California–based Oklo, siting its new round of commercial reactors at SODI poses a feasible next step that is of crucial importance to scale up the advanced reactor developer’s supply chain and begin positioning it to meet soaring nuclear demand.
Oklo’s flagship reactor technology is the Aurora Powerhouse, a vertically oriented compact passive fast-spectrum reactor derived from the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) that features a hexagonal fuel element with a sealed heat pipe and a passive air-cooling system. While the company has so far marketed a 1.5-MWe microreactor version of the Aurora, it has now expanded its capacity offerings from 15 MWe to 100 MWe. The design is simplified with more affordable and simpler components, and it is modular, which allows the company to achieve cost competitiveness, the company says.
“This is an uprate of the Aurora design, and we consider it part of the Aurora liquid metal fast reactor product family. With the same amount and type of fuel but different heat transport mechanisms (flowing sodium versus liquid metal in heat pipes), significantly more heat can be transported from the fuel—hence being able to produce 15 MWe versus 1.5 MWe nominally,” Oklo explained to POWER.
“We were always pursuing this product roadmap, but with where we’ve seen the market and customers go, and with the added strains on the fuel supply market, we wanted to move more quickly to the larger versions of the Aurora. We haven’t done a specific launch of the product, per se, since it is an evolution. On our website, we also mention the 50 and 100 MWe offerings coming soon,” it said.
Since launching its Aurora design in December 2019, Oklo has marked a quick succession of milestones, effectively gaining a reputation for trailblazing in the burgeoning advanced nuclear realm. In 2019, notably, Oklo obtained a site use permit from the DOE, and in February 2020, it snagged an agreement with INL to demonstrate recycled HALEU in a full-size Aurora reactor by 2026.
In March 2020, meanwhile, Oklo submitted the first-ever combined license application (COLA) to the NRC for an advanced non-light water reactor (LWR) for the INL project, and while NRC staff in January denied the application “without prejudice,” Oklo in September 2022 formally relaunched the licensing effort. In tandem, the company has kicked off regulatory activities for a first-of-its-kind nuclear fuel recycling facility that could produce commercial material from used LWR fuel before the decade’s end.
Oklo’s Two SODI Reactors Target 2028 Deployment
But while Oklo has now unveiled plans to build its second and third powerhouses, the plants’ targeted deployment as soon as 2028 will hinge on several factors, Jacob DeWitte, co-founder and CEO of Oklo, told POWER.
“Fuel availability will be a major factor affecting this timeline. Delays in HALEU production may delay this timeline,” he said. Oklo, however, has already forged key partnerships with potential fuel enrichers like Centrus, which is pioneering production of HALEU at its NRC-licensed facility leased from the DOE at the Portsmouth site.
Still, for now, Oklo is “planning and executing on upcoming steps and strategy.” Plans include pursuing “relevant permitting actions, culminating in a license to build and operate,” DeWitte added. Work done by SODI and its partners in developing an ESP template is “very promising, and should help accelerate our deployment at the site,” he noted.
Oklo’s first deployment at INL, initially developed as a 1.5-MWe microreactor, has meanwhile also been sized up to a 15-MWe reactor. “Given the demand and interest in Idaho for power, Oklo is deploying a 15 MW version of its Aurora design,” DeWitte confirmed. “At present, Oklo is actively engaged with the NRC as it prepares to submit an application within 12 months. Oklo has begun preliminary long-lead procurement activities,” he noted.
Oklo’s plans to build its second and third reactors, meanwhile, highlight how the company plans to carve a foothold in the emerging power technology market. “Our business model, and use of mature, demonstrated reactor technologies allow us to provide power to customers who want the reliable, clean, and affordable energy we can provide,” DeWitte said. “Oklo’s unique business model centers around owning and operating its power plants, making it easier for customers to procure energy through power purchase agreements [PPAs] or similar structures.”
The build-own-and-operate approach is notable given soaring industrial demand for nuclear power. In March, another micro-nuclear technology vendor, Last Energy, secured PPAs for 34 units with four industrial partners in the UK and Poland. X-energy, developer of a high-temperature gas reactor technology, has cultivated a partnership with chemicals giant Dow, and it last week unveiled a Dow site in Texas for its four-unit 320-MWe Xe-100 advanced nuclear reactor demonstration. “The PPA model is an exciting attribute to SODI, its partners, and other industrial entities in the area,” DeWitte noted.
Finally, for Oklo and other SODI participants, a key attribute has been achieving community consensus in developing the nuclear enclave at Portsmouth. The prospect offers more certainty for project development, including as they relate to deployment costs. But it may also serve to boost political and industrial interest and help sustain project funding.
“This is a community proud of its work and capabilities in supporting industrial activities, including nuclear facilities, and they are eager to bring those skills and capabilities to support the development and deployment of new nuclear technologies as part of the ongoing clean energy transition,” said DeWitte. “Oklo’s model has long involved a community-centric approach, and Oklo is excited to work with the community in Ohio and tap into this rich legacy of excellence.”
Oklo, however, will strive to pursue a commercially funded approach, DeWitte underscored. “All of this builds on decades of federal investments into advanced nuclear research, development, and deployment. Oklo’s partnerships with DOE and the national labs are all foundational to realizing commercial opportunities like this one and represent a real testament to the importance of nuclear research and development investment,” he said.
—Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).