Oklo, Inc. announced yesterday that its combined license application (COLA) to build and operate an Aurora at INL was undergoing acceptance review at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Key project specifics
Oklo’s Aurora is a 1.5 MWe liquid metal fast reactor with heat pipes to move fission heat out of the reactor core and into the secondary power generation system.
The complete system will be housed in the basement of the Aurora powerhouse. Oklo expects to spend approximately $10 million to build the complete power plant and structure. That cost doesn’t include fuel or land; both of those will be leased from the Department of Energy under separately announced programs. The requested license and the initial fuel load both have a life of 20 years.
The expected operating cost for the first of a kind generator is $3 million/year. No licensed operator will be required during normal operation; two trained site monitors will maintain the powerhouse and the secondary power generation system.
After the plant has completed its scheduled operational period, used fuel will be returned to the DOE, the power station will be decommissioned and the permitted site will be vacated.
As part of the application process, the company has made a commitment to purchase appropriate financial assurance instruments to cover expected decommissioning costs.
The application covers five potential sites at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Four of the five are just outside of the fence for the Material Test Facility (MTF) and one is separated by less than a mile from the MTF. Aurora sits on approximately 1/4 of an acre of land, but a laydown area and parking facilities increase the size of each site to approximately one acre.
According to the submitted Final Safety Analysis Report (FSAR), the exclusion zone, the low population zone and the emergency planning zone for the reactor are all defined by the powerhouse walls. Extensive safety analysis did not identify any credible event that would release fission products or increase radiation levels outside of the building.
Splash opportunity lost
Embedded in yesterday’s announcement was the fact that Oklo submitted its COLA during the week of March 9-13..
It’s likely that the company had timed its submission to make a splash at the NRC’s annual Regulatory Information Conference (RIC), which was scheduled for March 10-13. That event, with approximately 3,000 registered attendants, would have been the best attended U.S. nuclear industry gathering of the year. Unfortunately, it, like so many other interesting and important events was cancelled to reduce the potential exposure of attendants to the COVID-19 virus.
There is little doubt that announcing the COLA during the RIC would have created a flurry of reactions from both nuclear industry insiders and from the energy press that normally covers the RIC. I regret not having had the opportunity to witness and participate in the buzz around the bar at the Bethesda North Marriott.
Important markers laid down
Even though the well timed splash never occurred, no one should overlook the importance of Oklo’s ground-breaking announcement. For the first time since 2009, a company has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review an application to build and operate a nuclear electricity production facility.
There are several additional progress markers associated with this submission. It is the first non-LWR (light water reactor) COL application ever. The company submitting the application is not a standard utility company, but a newly formed, wholly owned subsidiary of a venture-funded start up company founded in 2013.
The application filed is a prototype for a new license review process that has yet to be formalized but has been under development for several years at the NRC. Internally, it is referred to as a Part 53 process.
Aside: That nickname is derived from the current Part 50 and Part 52 processes. It’s unclear what happened to Part 51, if there ever was such a designation. End Aside.
Though there is still a lengthy journey ahead, Oklo has already broken some barriers and created a new paradigm. It should be abundantly clear that fission has the potential to serve energy markets that are not either huge central station electric power plants or military ships.
It is also becoming clear that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has internalized the guidance given by Congress and the Administration in recently enacted legislation. It is striving to regain its position as the world’s best nuclear regulatory body, with “best” having a expansive meaning along several different vectors.