Another small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) has seen a major contract in jeopardy, casting more doubt on the prospects for this highly-touted technology of the future. The online news service Alaska Beacon reports that the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) has revoked an August Air Force preliminary decision to install an experimental Oklo micro reactor at Eielson Air Force near Fairbanks, Alaska.
The Defense Department logistics arm refused repeated requests for details and clarification of the cancellation of the Oklo project. The chance to build a small nuclear power plant at the Alaskan location drew interest from SMR vendors Oklo, BWXT, Westinghouse, NuScale Power, and Rolls Royce, among other interested energy parties at a meeting last year.
According to the Alaska Beacon, Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp., a new entrant in the SMR market, which has worked with DOD and NASA on space nuclear power systems made a “prefiling notice of protest” with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims when the Air Force picked the Oklo project. Untra Safe wants to offer 3.5 – 15 MW “modular micro reactors” for remote terrestrial uses, the same market better-known Oklo is targeting. A company official acknowledged the filing but said Ultra Safe had not yet made a formal protest. The court told The Quad Report that such filings are not public documents.
The online Alaska newsletter Northern Journal reported that the DLA action was pursuant to a DLA acquisition regulation that specifies, “For acquisitions with an estimated value of $100 million or more, contracting officers should conduct discussions.”
The contract protest came on the heels of the collapse of SMR developer NuScale Power’s major contract for six reactors in Idaho serving cities across the Western U.S.. A recent analysis from Iceberg Research raised the possibility of a NuScale bankruptcy.
Oklo’s possible loss of the Air Force deal could upset the plans of Santa Clara (CA)–based Oklo to go public next year through a “special purpose acquisition company,” AltC Acquisition Corp., which is led by controversial artificial intelligence entrepreneur Sam Altman, who is also the main investor in Oklo. Oklo announced the SPAC transaction last July, saying it expects to raise $500 million and be listed on the New York Stock Exchange as OKLO.
Oklo, which began life in 2013 proposing tiny reactors in the 1 – 2 MWe range, has upscaled its reactor design to 15 – 100 MW, according to POWER magazine. Using basic 1960’s technology demonstrated by the Atomic Energy Commission’s Experimental Breeder Reactor – II, Oklo’s “Aurora” machine uses fast (unmoderated) neutrons for the fission reaction, and an unspecified liquid metal coolant (most likely either sodium or the sodium-potassium alloy NAK). The metallic zirconium-uranium fuel would consist of high assay, low enriched uranium (HALEU), with an enrichment level of 19%.
Oklo has a 2019 deal with the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory for a demonstration at a site near Idaho Falls, with operation planned for 2026 at the earliest. In March 2020, Oklo submitted an application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a combined construction and operation license, the first for a non-light water advanced reactor. The NRC in January rejected the application, and Oklo is working on a new license submission.
Another SMR Setback
The Rockville, Md.-based X-Energy’s $1.8 billion SPAC merger with Ares Acquisition Corp. crashed at the end of October. The announcement came on the day X-Energy shareholders were scheduled to vote on the deal. X-Energy attributed the collapse of the deal to “challenging market conditions, peer-company trading performance, and a balancing of the benefits and drawbacks of becoming a publicly traded company under current circumstances.” The company is touting a 100-MW HTGR reactor design.
Kennedy Maize blogs at The Quad Report, from which this post was adapted.