In Japan, a majority of the country now believes it's time to turn the nuclear power back on as concerns over high power prices outweigh fears of a repeat of the Fukushima meltdown. While in Indiana a new bill, supported by the Biden Administration, will let utilities in the state develop new nuclear power plants for the nation's energy grid.
Meanwhile, energy production from Europe's first new operating nuclear power plant in fifteen years began earlier this month in Finland. And in the U.S., UK, and Europe businesses are launching and getting funding from governments to pursue research into next generation small modular reactors.
Spending from the U.S. and France into advanced nuclear technologies will approach $7 billion through funding announced over the last year. And those commitments occurred prior to the war in the Ukraine, which should further accelerate nuclear technology adoption.
This surge in spending is part of a global push to bring new fission reactors online -- while still even more advanced zero-emission energy technology waits in the wings.
Commercially available nuclear power relies on fission reactions -- where atoms are split to unleash incredible amounts of energy (and environmentally dangerous waste). These reactors were first developed in the years following the Second World War to harness nuclear energy's power for constructive, civilian use instead of bombs and missiles with the capability to destroy human civilization.
In Finland, the nuclear power plant that just went online will provide about 5 to 8 terawatt hours of energy (enough energy to power several major U.S. cities).
Some technology investors are waking up to the new opportunity in developing technology for a resurgent nuclear industry. Radiant Nuclear and Oklo are two startups working on the next generation of small modular reactors.
Typically, when the public thinks of a nuclear power plant, it's still a huge reactor. The Indiana bill, for instance, supports the kinds of reactors being developed by TerraPower (a Bill Gates-backed nuclear technology developer) and NuScale Power, which are both developing reactors that will provide several hundred megawatts of power.
These plants can still take years and billions of dollars in funding to build -- simply put, the world doesn't have the time to waste while hundreds of these reactors get built and brought online decades in the future.
Oklo and Radiant, by contrast, are working on much smaller power producing assets. They're variations on the kinds of reactors that have been powering submarines for decades and they're being put to work in civilian applications to provide smaller, modular power sources that can be distributed more broadly.
Radiant, with its 1 megawatt reactor is intended for military and remote generation applications and (eventually) interplanetary space travel. At least, that's the word from its investors at Cantos Ventures who recently invested in the company.
In fact, it's the last application that led Doug Bernauer, the co-founder of Radiant, to launch the company. Bernauer, a former SpaceX engineer who worked on the company's Falcon 1, Grasshopper, and boring vehicles (the last of which was spun out into the Boring Company) believes that micro-reactors like the ones he's building at Radiant are necessary to become a spacefaring, multi-planetary species. It's why he built Radiant with his colleague Paul Keutelian to develop a zero-emission power source that works anywhere.
For the team at Oklo, it's being able to build a nuclear reactor that can work anywhere, produce power at the scales needed to meet specific tasks and at the speed necessary to provide alternatives to fossil fuels in a timeframe that meets the urgency of the climate crisis.
"If you just assume a world... where [supply chains and government permits] are fully functional... our timeline to construct our first plant is 52 weeks," said Oklo co-founder and chief executive Jacob DeWitte. "You’re talking about building things out in a few months. You could have a bunch of these operating by late '23 and early '24."*
Now, zero-emission reactors are not zero-waste, and governments around the world are putting funding into new initiatives that can address waste disposal.
Oklo has a $5 million cost-share project with the famous Argonne National Laboratory, the Idaho National Laboratory and an early stage technology company called Deep Isolation, to work on a fuel recycling solution which would reduce the need for waste disposal.
“The ONWARDS project will build on our other DOE project work to allow Oklo to build a first-of-a-kind fuel recycling facility,” said Jacob DeWitte, co-founder and CEO of Oklo. The fuel recycling facility will enable Oklo to convert nuclear waste from existing used nuclear fuel into clean energy, as well as to recycle fuel from Oklo’s plants, allowing for a dramatic cost reduction and solving for a key supply chain need."
Bill Gates-backed TerraPower also received an $8.5 million grant to pursue its own uranium recovery process so nuclear fuels could be re-used rather than disposed.
“TerraPower continues to advance nuclear energy’s promise for our country and the world,” said TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque. “As a nuclear innovation company, we are actively exploring new solutions across the fuel cycle, including the best way to address used fuel. This aligns with our mission to develop groundbreaking technologies for some of the most pressing challenges of this generation.”
All of this activity around new nuclear development is vital as the world works to move away from fossil fuel power for immediate political and existential reasons.
*This piece was updated to reflect additional context around regulatory permitting for Oklo's reactors provided by the company.