Nuclear power is having a moment.
After the construction boom in the middle of the last century and peak production capacity in 2012nuclear power has come under increased scrutiny following highly publicized nuclear accidents such as Three Mile Island 1979, Chernobyl in 1986and Fukushima 2011. Over 100 nuclear power projects were canceled in the 1970s and 1980s, and the rest were closed for economic reasons or after reaching the end of their working lives.
However, times have changed. Nuclear energy is now supported by many environmentalists as a safe and resilient source of energy without emissions, with a smaller material footprint than traditional energy plants, low land intensity and the possibility of preserving nature in the surrounding area. Furthermore, nuclear power is a reliable source of baseload power to stabilize and supplement renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, whose performance can vary as weather conditions change. Waste remains a concern, even though the nuclear industry refuses to manage it, control it, and not release it into the environment like traditional sources. Nuclear received additional support as a carbon-free energy source for geopolitical reasons following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
Passed in August 2022 Inflation Reduction Act supports nuclear energy as a clean energy source through several actions, including a tax credit to keep existing nuclear power plants operating, production tax incentives for the latest generation of advanced nuclear reactors, and loan guarantees for clean energy projects, including nuclear. Even “Coal Land” is onwith West Virginia reversing its nuclear power ban, enacted in 1996 to protect the state’s coal industry.
With almost 70% of its annual nuclear electricity production, France’s nuclear program provides the largest share of electricity of any country in the world. Yet the United States produces more terawatt-hours than any other country in the world – China is second, with about half the production of the US
Jacob DeWitte is part of a new generation of nuclear entrepreneurs and co-founder and CEO of Oklo, a California-based startup developing small nuclear power plants to deliver emissions-free, reliable and affordable energy. Oklo’s the initial offering is Aurora, a microreactor housed in an A-frame structure expected to produce 15 megawatts of electricity, which it will own and operate in a power purchase agreement with customers such as industrial sites, data centers and more. Oklo is also developing the first commercial advanced nuclear power plant in the US to convert nuclear waste to energy, to harness the power of spent nuclear fuel.
With a doctorate in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an internship at Sandia National Laboratories, DeWitte grew up around the nuclear industry in New Mexico and realized that while nuclear power holds promise, it is also vastly underutilized. He entered the field not long after many were leaving and when the nuclear power plants were being shut down.
DeWitte saw the macro trends of population growth, the electrification of the developing world, market demand, and public and political pressure for decarbonization, and saw nuclear power as the answer to the need for scalable, sustainable, reliable, affordable, and clean energy. “Nuclear energy has one of the lowest, if not the lowest, carbon footprint per kilowatt hour (kWh) of energy generated,” he said. “It has the smallest overall material footprint of all energy sources in terms of concrete and steel used. It is economical and sustainable. Renewables can be economically attractive, but they have challenges in terms of how deeply they can be deployed in the overall grid system, and nuclear can complement that really well.”
He explained his company’s departure from traditional, large reactors. “The smaller size of the microreactor reduces the overall cost in the market. The previous nuclear business model has been larger systems that require some degree of government support due to the large scale of capital requirements – a traditional reactor is on the order of billions of dollars,” said DeWitte. Additional advantages of microreactors may include factory production and manufacturing, which can improve safety and quality control. Microreactors also open the door to models of selling directly to consumers rather than through utility providers.
But how does the nuclear power industry innovate in the face of “not in my backyard” opposition, a slow regulatory process and poor public perception?
Innovation is intended to happen quickly. Still, “fail fast” is a difficult mantra to implement when a nuclear plant’s failure can lead to catastrophic consequences, and the regulatory process is deliberately slow to avoid such a failure. DeWitte addresses this by saying, “It’s our job and our opportunity to try to shorten the feedback loops as much as possible. Very small reactor development looks different from what is done in the commercial regulatory space. We have taken a piecemeal and highly iterative approach with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), where we outline how we intend to meet regulatory requirements, get feedback and move fairly quickly. The NRC is transparent and iterative, and we get a lot of dynamic feedback. That’s valuable.”
Investors in nuclear power include venture capital, institutional and public sponsors. DeWitte says they recognize the overall market opportunity, vision and value. One of the most prominent nuclear investors is Bill Gates, who founded TerraPower in 2008 as a means to meet the related needs of increasing electricity demand, climate change, and economic opportunity. In a survey conducted for CNBC, Pitchbook found that venture capital deal flow to nuclear startups grew by 3,642% in dollar value between 2015 and 2021, compared to 294% for venture capital overall.
DeWitte addresses the competition typically present in the startup world, saying, “I would call it short-sighted if people get too competitive because at the end of the day, the opportunity in the nuclear market is so huge. Even a large company will only own a small part. There is room for many people, and for those people to fit into different niches. The goal should be to look at the reality of what it will take to use low-carbon energy sources on the scale that the world needs.”
A challenging aspect is the historically heavy reliance on government funding and support. DeWitte explains that this sparked the “zero sum” thinking that pervaded the nuclear industry, with the view that there is only so much money the government will approve and only a few companies will flow. “The reality is that government grants and support are great, but there are benefits beyond direct funding, things like market incentives and implementation incentives on the loan program side and tax incentives,” DeWitte said. “These benefits attract private capital. The more private capital comes in, the more it follows and it becomes a positive cycle and the opposite of a zero-sum game. But that mindset is still pretty pervasive.”
While the NRC requested additional information from Okla. in January to continue its license application to build its advanced nuclear power plant, Aurora at the Idaho National Laboratory, DeWitte remains optimistic. “It’s all part of the learning process. If something doesn’t work on the financing side, or the regulatory side, or the construction side, or the first plant of the first type is exceeded, it’s not the end of the world. It’s how you manage it, how you control it, how you learn from it and how everyone adapts to it.”
DeWitte argues that innovation is more than technology. “It’s the company, it’s the culture, it’s the business model, it’s the go-to-market, it’s the financing, it’s the regulation, it’s the whole thing. Are we going to innovate all these things at once? No, but people will have different approaches in all those areas. These approaches will elevate the industry as a whole and ultimately be best for our planet.”
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Check out my other columns here.
Forbes – Innovation