Revolutionary Micro Nuclear Reactors Will Run on Waste

The autonomous reactors will use the nuclear waste of larger power plants.
Ameya Paleja
Rendering of Oklo powerhouseGensler/Wikimedia Commons

A major lament against nuclear energy has been the amount of nuclear waste produced by the nuclear plants and our inability to process this waste. But 22 people startup, Oklo, plans to make small-scale reactors that can use the nuclear waste from conventional nuclear power plants, CNBC reported

Traditionally, nuclear power plants have been grand affairs taking years to build and begin operations. Like most industrial revolution concepts, nuclear power plants also apply economies of scale to make electric energy cheaply. Oklo, based in Silicon Valley, wants to disrupt this convention and build smaller nuclear reactors that can offer nuclear-powered energy. To keep the operations cost-effective, the startup wants to build autonomous reactors that do not need human supervision and most importantly use the nuclear waste from larger power plants. 

The idea of using nuclear plant waste is not very new and has been around for many decades now. Oklo, the company, too has been around for a while. Established in 2013, it took the company seven years to get access to nuclear waste to demonstrate its technology.

In 2019, it unveiled its plans for its microreactor with integrated solar panels making this 1.5 megawatt (MW) plant sustainable and clean. The capacity of the plant might look small compared to traditional power plants but is sufficient to power industrial sites,  large companies,  and college campuses. The company claims that its microreactors can be built in a year's time paving way for the company's goal of having a number of operational by the mid-2020s.  

The reactor uses nuclear waste that is earmarked for disposal and allows it to undergo further fission in its 'fast' reactor. These reactors do not use water or any other material to slow down the neutrons, released during the fission process. Since the process is not controlled, it is more efficient. Oklo claims its reactors can work without refueling for 20 years. 

The waste generated from these plants would radioactive but far lesser than the one that comes out of traditional nuclear plants. Oklo plans to vitrify the waste and bury it underground, in line with current methods of nuclear waste management. 

“What we’ve done is take waste that you have to think about managing for 100,000 or a million years ... and now changed it into a form where you think about it for a few hundred, maybe thousands of years," Oklo's co-founder Jacob DeWitte told CNBC. 

While Oklo still needs a license to build its first microreactor, their idea of unsupervised nuclear power plants has drawn flak from experts.  How regulators respond to this proposal remains to be seen. 

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