Everett Redmond is a nuclear engineer working as the Senior Director of Fuel Affairs at Oklo. We discuss the enormous challenges and opportunities in renewing the US’s nuclear fleet over the next decade, Oklo’s development of fast nuclear reactors, and how such small modular nuclear reactors will soon become commonplace.
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Biden’s White House has embarked on an ambitious climate change policy: it plans to eliminate fossil fuels for energy production in the U.S. by 2035. But, as anyone who has knowledge of the energy grid knows, this can not be replaced by traditional renewable energy sources: wind and solar both have intermittency and geographic constraints, hydro is even more geographically limited, and biomass has a range of issues such as the scale of land required and emissions.
Whatever technology is used to produce sustainable energy in the future, it needs to provide a minimum level of base power that can enable human life to flourish in any and every location. Nuclear, despite the widespread fears, presents that opportunity: it is an extremely dense, reliable and effective power source. And yet, political pressure has resulted in the industry flatlining over the past few decades.
Nuclear provides 20% of the US’s energy needs. It has been like this for the past 20 years, over which time only 1 new reactor has been built. This lack of investment means the US nuclear fleet has an average age of over 41 years, the third oldest in the world. Experts realise nuclear needs to be central to Biden’s climate change ambitions. And yet, the renewal of the existing fleet represents a challenge in itself, before thinking about increasing capacity.
But there is a path forward: a new generation of fast nuclear reactors provides an opportunity to have modular designs, streamlining the build and planning process, and reducing costs and development timescales. Such reactors are designed to be inherently safe and can support a range of energy needs beyond just electricity production. Further, such reactors can use spent fuel and significantly limit the amount of waste produced. We are on the cusp of a nuclear future.