Oklo has kicked off regulatory actions for a first-of-its-kind nuclear gasoline recycling facility that might produce industrial materials from used gentle water reactor (LWR) gasoline earlier than the last decade’s finish.
The superior nuclear expertise agency in December submitted a licensing venture plan (LPP) to the Nuclear Regulatory Fee (NRC) for its Gas Recycling Applied sciences facility. The LPP basically outlines the corporate’s plans for “pre-application engagement actions that assist the longer term licensing of a first-of-a-kind gasoline recycling facility,” the corporate stated on Jan. 25.
Whereas Oklo didn’t publicly disclose the place it plans to website the industrial pilot gasoline facility and the way a lot industrial materials it may produce on a pilot scale, the corporate stated the privately funded commercial-scale gasoline recycling facility would assist the deployment of Oklo’s “superior fission” energy crops.
The Crucial to Safe Gas, Handle a Nuclear Cycle Hole
Oklo is in tandem growing crops based mostly on its 1.5-MW Aurora microreactor design—a compact quick reactor. It says it has greater than 750 MW of buyer curiosity in signed memoranda of understanding and letters of intent, and it’s actively evaluating 15 completely different websites. Whereas the NRC in January 2022 denied Oklo’s pioneering mixed license software (COLA) for a venture the superior nuclear developer plans to construct and function at Idaho Nationwide Laboratory (INL), the corporate in September 2022 relaunched its licensing course of for the nuclear microreactor venture.
In the meantime, the corporate has to this point gained 4 Division of Power (DOE) aggressive awards for gasoline recycling, together with three awards granted in 2022. The 4 awards, which quantity to about $17 million, “contain expertise growth in assist of commercializing manufacturing of superior reactor gasoline from used nuclear gasoline [UNF],” which can also be known as spent nuclear gasoline (SNF) or nuclear waste, the corporate stated. In 2019, Oklo additionally notably acquired a first-of-its-kind website use allow to construct its Aurora plant on the INL website in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and in 2020 turned the primary fashionable superior reactor design agency to safe entry to recycled high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) gasoline from INL for demonstration functions.
In accordance with Jacob DeWitte, co-founder and CEO of Oklo, launching the first-of-a-kind facility that can recycle used gasoline from different reactors, in addition to Oklo’s personal reactors, marks an vital subsequent step for the corporate. “The flexibility to economically recycle gasoline is a crucial attribute for growing home gasoline provides, and providing recycling companies additionally presents a sizeable alternative,” he famous on Wednesday. “We’re taking a serious step ahead in bringing significant gasoline recycling capabilities domestically that can produce cost-competitive gasoline.”
As POWER has reported in-depth, the trouble aligns with renewed private and non-private efforts worldwide to discover recycling UNF from gentle water reactors (LWRs). Whereas nonetheless rife with challenges, nuclear gasoline recycling may each cut back the quantity of high-level waste (HLW) that can require everlasting disposal and doubtlessly present feedstock that may very well be utilized in home superior reactors, the DOE has stated.
“Used nuclear gasoline will be remodeled into an power useful resource since used gasoline is sort of 95% recyclable. The power content material in at this time’s used gasoline can produce the nation’s energy wants for over 150 years,” Oklo famous. “Oklo’s dedication to home gasoline provide infrastructure will assist guarantee superior reactor gasoline is produced economically and effectively for its energy crops.”
Oklo’s Regulatory Technique
Whereas Oklo’s plans to finish its deliberate Gas Recycling Applied sciences by 2030 to fulfill market demand are notable, its efforts to blaze a brand new regulatory path for nuclear gasoline recycling are particularly important. Within the U.S., 4 giant industrial nuclear gasoline reprocessing plant tasks have been initiated, however solely one industrial reprocessing facility was constructed and operated: Nuclear Gas Service’s West Valley plant close to Buffalo, New York. The power ran from 1966 till 1972, nevertheless it by no means processed industrial SNF, and it was in the end shuttered owing to stricter regulatory necessities.
And whereas the NRC in 2008 initiated efforts to evaluate and replace its reprocessing regulatory framework, in 2016, it suspended work on Half 7x—a technology-neutral rule to deal with giant reprocessing amenities (with an annual throughput of about 1,000 million tons of spent gasoline)—owing to an “obvious lack of business curiosity in establishing and working a industrial spent gasoline reprocessing facility within the U.S.”
Whereas the NRC in the end held a public assembly in 2020 to gauge business curiosity in licensing, constructing, and working a spent gasoline reprocessing facility, it decided that curiosity was not close to time period. “[Nuclear Energy Institute] and business representatives supported the continuation of rulemaking for clear and steady regulatory framework, however didn’t point out plans to submit a reprocessing facility software within the foreseeable future (10-20 years),” the federal regulatory physique stated. “Different stakeholders didn’t need continued rulemaking due to proliferation and different issues,” it added.
In March 2021, NRC employees advisable that the fee discontinue the SNF reprocessing rulemaking, suggesting it was not cost-justified “as there may be restricted curiosity expressed or anticipated from potential candidates for reprocessing amenities, together with superior reactor designers, within the near-term use of reprocessed spent gasoline.” The fee authorized the advice in June 2021.
In its letter to the NRC on Dec. 29, Oklo acknowledged its submittal of an software for a gasoline recycling facility “can be the primary in a few years, due to this fact requiring alignment with NRC employees on approaches to complying with present necessities.” Nevertheless, the corporate added that it believes “there’s a pathway to licensing a industrial gasoline recycling facility by way of the NRC’s present laws and doesn’t recommend a necessity for a rulemaking on this space.” Oklo stated it’s already partaking with NRC employees on gasoline recycling and intends to make use of present laws “immediately.”
A New Path for Superior Nuclear Gas Innovation
Oklo’s announcement additionally arrives because the race to combine superior reactors into future power programs to assist decarbonization is supercharging innovation in nuclear fuels. An array of analysis initiatives are underway to discover new concepts in moderators and coolants, together with different supplies and fuels.
Important consideration up to now has been heaped on tristructural isotropic (TRISO) particle gasoline, essentially the most mature superior nuclear gasoline idea. In December, Lynchburg, Virginia–based mostly BWX Applied sciences initiated full-scale manufacturing of TRISO for the Venture Pele microreactor, a Division of Protection venture that can showcase the development and operation of the primary microreactor within the U.S. BWXT will manufacture a core for Venture Pele and ship the prototype microreactor to INL for testing by 2024. Gas for the reactor will likely be down-blended from U.S. authorities stockpiles of high-enriched uranium (HEU) to HALEU and fabricated into TRISO gasoline on the BWXT facility in Lynchburg, Virginia. To date, BWXT amenities are the one non-public U.S. amenities licensed by the NRC to own and course of HEU.
In October 2022, nonetheless, superior reactor expertise agency X-energy broke floor and started development actions on its TRISO-X Gas Fabrication Facility (TF3) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The NRC on Dec. 15 accepted TRISO-X’s software for its gasoline fabrication facility. TF3 is ready to be operational by 2025.
Metallic fuels are additionally garnering curiosity. Steel fuels, which comprise heavy metals (usually uranium) alloyed with numerous different metals for irradiation efficiency functions, are thought of well-suited for quick reactors as a result of they’ve larger densities of fissile and fertile supplies than different gasoline types. Whereas additionally comparatively mature, steel gasoline is often bonded to the cladding by liquid sodium to enhance warmth switch traits. Analysis efforts of late have centered on growing gasoline with out sodium bonding. Sodium is usually a reactive element and requires therapy earlier than final disposition. The DOE’s “Main Innovation in Gas Expertise” initiative, for instance, is working to assist the qualification of metallic gasoline expertise and ship a sodium-free metallic gasoline choice inside 5 years.
A 3rd fundamental superior nuclear gasoline idea contains molten salts. Since Oak Ridge Nationwide Laboratory’s (ORNL’s) Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (which ran from January 1965 by way of December 1969, logging greater than 13,000 hours at full energy), a wide range of designs have been developed, pushed by the gasoline type’s capability potential for high-temperature purposes. The essential molten salt reactor (MSR) idea makes use of a molten combination of lithium and beryllium fluoride (FLiBe) salts with dissolved low-enriched uranium (U-235 or U-233) fluorides (UF4). Fashionable ideas below exploration embrace strong gasoline MSR expertise—which China is exploring for thorium-fueled variations. Within the U.S., Kairos Energy is making headway on a 320-MWt/140-MWe fluoride (FLiBe) salt-cooled high-temperature reactor (KP-FHR), planning to deploy it on the East Tennessee Expertise Park at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In July 2022, Kairos commissioned a molten salt purification plant to provide “giant portions” of FLiBe for its KP-FHR reactors.
Gas Procurement Posing a Problem
Superior reactor builders, nonetheless, have expressed issues about how they’ll procure sufficient provides of HALEU, a type of uranium-235 gasoline enriched to twenty%. Many superior nuclear reactor designs, together with 9 of the ten designs awarded below the DOE’s Superior Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), require HALEU. However at the moment, HALEU is accessible from solely two sources: restricted quantities from the DOE by way of down-blending of present stockpiles of fabric, and from industrial provides by way of TENEX, a nuclear gasoline firm owned by Russian state-owned firm Rosatom.
In December, TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque warned that completion of its Natrium plant in Wyoming, a much-watched ARDP venture slated to be operational in 2028, may very well be delayed. Levesque stated, “given the shortage of gasoline availability now, and that there was no [domestic] development began on new gasoline enrichment amenities, TerraPower is anticipating a minimal of a two-year delay to having the ability to carry the Natrium reactor into operation.”
As a outstanding shiny spot, the DOE in November 2022 awarded Centrus Power a $150 million “definitized contract” to pioneer manufacturing of HALEU at its facility leased from DOE in Piketon, Ohio. Underneath the primary part of its contract, Centrus will end development of its American Centrifuge facility, carry the cascade on-line, and display manufacturing of 20 kilograms (kg) of 19.75% enriched HALEU by Dec. 31, 2023. Underneath Section 2, Centrus will proceed manufacturing for a full yr at an annual manufacturing price of 900 kg of HALEU. The DOE will personal the HALEU produced from the demonstration cascade.
“Nevertheless, the large elevate is incentivizing a industrial provide chain [for HALEU] that doesn’t exist at this time. The traditional ‘hen and egg’ state of affairs must be damaged,” famous Andrew Griffith, deputy assistant secretary for Nuclear Gas Cycle and Provide Chain, throughout a Nuclear Regulatory Fee (NRC) briefing on Dec. 8. “And we imagine the federal government position is to determine that non permanent demand sign to face up that capability.” Luckily, with $700 million appropriated to HALEU efforts below the Inflation Discount Act, the DOE has sufficient assets “to get began,” Griffith added. The funding will assist criticality benchmarking and transportation bundle design adaptation, in addition to assist certificates of compliance. “Whether or not that’s sufficient or not nonetheless stays to be seen. I do know there’s nonetheless work throughout the administration to get further funding on that, in addition to in Congress. So, we’re going to proceed to work towards that finish, as a result of that is so extremely vital to achieve success right here,” he stated.
For Oklo, the answer might lie in alternatives missed by the nation’s nuclear gasoline open-cycle strategy. “The gasoline recycling facility will allow Oklo to transform nuclear waste from present used nuclear gasoline into clear power, in addition to to recycle gasoline from Oklo’s crops, permitting for a dramatic value discount and fixing for a key provide chain want,” DeWitte has stated. “A commercial-scale gasoline recycling facility will change the financial paradigm for superior fission.”
—Sonal Patel is a POWER senior affiliate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).