(A light water small modular nuclear reactor. Credit: U.S. Government Accountability Office/Wikimedia Commons)
Sam Altman is an entrepreneur, investor, and former president of Y Combinator, a startup accelerator that has funded companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Stripe. He is also the CEO of OpenAI, which developed ChatGPT, a research organization that aims to create artificial intelligence that can benefit humanity without causing harm or being influenced by external factors.
One of its most recent projects is Oklo (founded in 2015), a company that develops small modular nuclear reactors. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are smaller in size and capacity compared to traditional nuclear reactors, offering several advantages over their larger counterparts, including enhanced safety features, scalability, flexibility and versatility, reduced cost of capital, reduced environmental impact, and better waste management.
There are various designs and concepts for SMRs, including pressurized water reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, and molten salt reactors, among others. Each design has its own unique features and advantages, and their commercial implementation is ongoing, with several projects in various stages of development and regulatory approval. Small modular nuclear reactors have the potential to play a significant role in the future of nuclear power, providing a flexible and safer option for clean and reliable power generation. They can be built in factories and transported to the place where they will be installed and operated. The development of SMR is seen by many as a potential way to address the challenges of climate change.
Oklo reactors use a fuel called “spac”, and can operate for up to 20 years without refueling. Spac is made from recycled nuclear waste, which reduces the environmental impact and proliferation risk of nuclear power. Oklo claims its reactors can provide electricity for as little as $0.03 per kilowatt-hour, cheaper than most fossil fuels and renewables. Oklo has already received a site permit from the US Department of Energy to build its first reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory and plans to operate it by 2024. The United States Air Force plans to use the Oklo reactor for the Base Alaska Airlines Eielson.
Oklo has several competitors, including TerraPower backed by Bill Gates, and NuScale which recently received $275 million in funding for a Romanian project, Rolls-Royce from Great Britain, or GE Hitachi. At the end of 2020, at least 72 SMR concepts are in development, 40% more than in 2018. About half are based on light water reactor technologies and the other half on 4th generation light water reactor concepts. The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency estimated in 2016 that SMR power built by 2035 could reach 21 GW, or about 9% of the nuclear power plant market in 2020-2035 and 3% of installed nuclear capacity in 2035.
Oklo is to go public through a merger with a company formed for this purpose by Sam Altman with Michael Klein, AltC Acquisition Corporation.