Update: On Jan 6, 2022, the NRC denied Oklo’s COA application “without prejudice.” Power published an article titled NRC Dismisses Application for Oklo Advanced Nuclear Reactor that provides a solid early summary of the action and its implications.
A new generation of clean energy is on the horizon
Oklo is a clean energy company that has focused on developing a product and service that people want to buy. In 2020, they made history by submitting, and having had the NRC accept, their combined license application for their Aurora powerhouse design.
Over the last couple of years, Oklo has also made notable strides on multiple fronts. They were approved to use a specific site on the Idaho National Laboratory campus to build their first unit. The arrangement includes the grant of a long term site use permit. An environmental assessment is already underway.
Oklo further recognized that the INL was storing waste from the EBR-II project and knew that this waste would be well suited to be the fuel for their reactor. They have secured an agreement with the INL to supply this waste and approval from the DOE to use it as fuel in their reactor.
While making rapid progress with the fundamental ingredients for the development of a new breed of nuclear power, Oklo has also been quietly building the kind of business that appeals to investors. There is considerable evidence for this, as Oklo has been very successful in tapping into the deep pools of venture capital available in Silicon Valley and beyond.
Founded in 2013 by Jake Dewitte and Caroline Cochran, a pair of MIT graduates, Oklo has passed through a number of important technical milestones faster than many nuclear professionals imagined was possible. Along the way, they have also developed a keen understanding of their relationship with venture capital and have honed their ability to convey their vision to investors—an essential ingredient for entrepreneurs competing for funding.
Taking a long-term approach to valuation
In an early step that virtually no other advanced reactor venture has done, Oklo’s founders applied to and were accepted into the Y Combinator venture accelerator program located in Silicon Valley. Recognizing that much of the investment activity was happening there, the founders moved their company to Silicon Valley. There, they joined a broader community of entrepreneurs, honed skills and built relationships that have proven very important, enabling them to successfully raise seed and Series A venture capital.
Fast forward and we find that Oklo has come a long way. The group introduced the world to the Aurora powerhouse in December 2019, showcasing a stunningly gorgeous architectural design that lit up the minds of everyone imagining what 4th Generation nuclear might look like. Simultaneously, Oklo has managed its own growth with great care and has created a corporate culture and brand image that exudes the values of its youthful founders.
Oklo built a diverse, integrated, efficient team, with just a couple dozen employees well into its 7th year of operation. Nevertheless, Oklo invested its time generously towards good citizenship within the nuclear community, working during four years of pre-application interactions with the NRC to define improved review parameters, educating the industry about the production needs of Gen IV developers, and participating broadly in discussions to explain advanced nuclear to the public.
Incorporating values into their reactor design, Oklo created an open space within the plant building to be accessible by the community. While it might seem wasteful, such features can win over the remote communities that comprise Oklo’s initial target customers evaluating how well the Aurora replaces their dirty diesel generators. In thinking creatively about how advanced nuclear can help remote communities improve quality of life, Oklo has successfully lined up considerable customer interest.
A First of a Kind
Oklo is developing a “First of a kind” (FOAK) advanced energy system, which typically involves unusual costs and risks that can scare away investors. Yet, Oklo’s simple, safe and small reactor passively cools itself with a design that has already been well proven. They’ve based their modern implementation on the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-2), that ran for 30 years, providing a wealth of performance data that has helped the NRC regulator get comfortable with the design’s technical capabilities.
Thus, while some might think that Oklo’s first-ever 4th Gen application to the NRC might never be approved, the NRC accepted the application even though it was radically shorter than prior applications submitted for Gen III plants. The review process is expected to take roughly three years, rather than four to complete. This means that Oklo could have an approved certification as early as 2023, though the NRC is never bound by expectations or schedules for the completion of its work (hence, vague time adjectives are the only truthful ones for estimating NRC review completions.)
Meanwhile, at the INL, Oklo has already begun to develop relationships within this highly supportive and deeply technical community where they will have access to considerable expertise and lab resources. The protected national laboratory site allows safety and security concerns to be thoroughly addressed while the plant overcomes the “not demonstrated” objections raised by those wanting to see it first, to believe it.
All these factors combine to make Oklo an extremely enticing opportunity for investors to consider. Oklo, itself an impressive first-of-a-kind venture, has demonstrated an ability to make considerable progress with a lean and efficient organization. By working smartly and being willing to invest in bringing people along, Oklo has avoided many of the pitfalls, delays and expenses associated with nuclear development in the past. Having set the stage to have construction commence on the first Aurora unit by 2024, with completion conservatively estimated by 2025, Oklo is an advanced nuclear venture that is operating on a time scale that works for venture capital investors.