A West Coast startup wants to build two nuclear power plants in southeast Ohio

Posted on:

< < Back to

ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — A California company plans to build two small-scale nuclear power plants near Piketon that will operate under a new model compared with traditional plants.

If the plants are built, they would be among the first commercial nuclear reactors in the United States to use the new process.

The company behind the proposal, Oklo Inc., first must get a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear industry.

An architectural rendering of the design of the nuclear power plant Oklo Inc. is planning to build in southeast Ohio.
An architectural rendering of the design of the nuclear power plant Oklo Inc. is planning to build in southeast Ohio. [Oklo Inc.]
The plants in Ohio would be Oklo’s second and third. The company plans to build its first reactor in Idaho. 

Oklo submitted a license application for the Idaho reactor in March 2020. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission denied the license in January 2022, saying the company had not provided enough information to do a full safety assessment of the proposed reactor, which the company calls Aurora.

“Oklo’s application continues to contain significant information gaps in its description of Aurora’s potential accidents as well as its classification of safety systems and components,” Andrea Veil, director of the commission’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, said in a news release announcing the decision.

The commission and Oklo have since been engaged in a pre-application process to lay the groundwork for a new license application. This process involves a different reactor design than the one first proposed for the Idaho site, said Scott Burnell, a public affairs officer for the commission.

“We’ve been actively engaged with the NRC in closing out the open areas for which they wanted more information,” said Bonita Chester, Oklo’s director of communications. “These can generally be considered areas where the advanced nature of the technology, and its differences from current reactors, can cause deviations in style and format of what the regulator is used to, so we have focused on bridging that and communicating those accordingly.”

The two reactors Oklo is proposing for southeast Ohio will be the same design as the one it plans to build in Idaho. Oklo plans on submitting a new application for the Idaho plant within the next 12 months and an application for the Ohio plants by 2025, Chester said.

The Ohio reactors will be built on the site of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, where for decades uranium was enriched for use in nuclear weapons and commercial nuclear power plants.

The site occupies thousands of acres about two miles south of Piketon. The plant stopped enriching uranium in 2001. The decades of operation left large portions of the site – including buildings, soil and groundwater – significantly contaminated with radioactive and other hazardous wastes.

An extensive cleanup operation has been underway for years and will continue for at least another decade, according to a timeline by the U.S. Department of Energy, which is overseeing the efforts. Meanwhile, local economic development officials are trying to find businesses interested in locating on portions of the site that are not contaminated.

Oklo’s plan to build the two reactors is “one of the biggest things that’s happened in decades,” said Steve Shepherd, executive director of the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative, which is promoting economic redevelopment of the site.

The site is one of the best locations in the country for building nuclear power plants, Shepherd said. The uranium enrichment operations consumed massive amounts of electricity, he said, and the connections to the power grid are still in place, something power plants need to distribute the power they produce.

The region also offers a trained workforce, Shepherd said. Many people who live in the area worked at the plant when it was enriching uranium and are now working on the cleanup. They are familiar and comfortable with nuclear operations, he said.

Oklo plans to purchase 40 to 50 acres at the site, Shepherd said. The two power plants it plans to build will provide up to 30 megawatts of electric power, according to the company. At full capacity, this would be enough to supply the annual electricity needs of more than 24,700 homes, based on average household energy consumption data provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Because its reactors will be much smaller than traditional nuclear power plants, they will be cheaper, easier and faster to build, according to Oklo. An architectural rendering on Oklo’s website shows the reactors will be housed in a modular structure composed of triangular panels with an A-frame entrance.

Another feature of its reactors is they will be able to use the nuclear waste from other reactors as fuel, according to Oklo. This recycling of nuclear waste has significant environmental benefits, according to the company. This includes a significant reduction in the length of time the waste continues to emit harmful amounts of radiation.

Oklo’s announcement comes just a few months after Centrus Energy Corp. announced it had signed a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy to enrich uranium at the Piketon site. It will produce a different type of enriched uranium than was produced previously at the site and will use a different method.

The enriched uranium Centrus produces will be the kind needed by the next generation of nuclear reactor designs now under development by Oklo and other companies. Centrus said its Piketon facility is the only one licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to produce this type of uranium.

The uranium Centrus enriches under the contract will be owned by the federal government. Centrus said it could scale up the facility within a few years to meet the demands of commercial reactors.

Chester, the Oklo spokesperson, said partnerships with fuel enrichers such as Centrus “will be key to ensuring fuel is available for our plants.”