Altman-backed Oklo nuclear facility ramps up as AI industry looks to add energy sources – NBC News

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Tech firms and Silicon Valley billionaires have been pouring money into nuclear energy for years, pitching the sustainable power source as crucial to the green transition. Now they have another incentive to promote it: artificial intelligence.

While generative AI has grown at lightning speed, nuclear power projects are heavily regulated and usually advance at a plodding pace. That’s raising questions about whether advances in nuclear energy can cut emissions as swiftly as energy-guzzling AI and other fast-growing technologies are adding to them.

“If you were to integrate large language models, GPT-style models into search engines, it’s going to cost five times as much environmentally as standard search,” said Sarah Myers West, managing director of the AI Now Institute, a research group focused on the social impacts of AI. At current growth rates, some new AI servers could soon gobble up more than 85 terawatt hours of electricity each year, researchers have estimated — more than some small nations’ annual energy consumption.

“I want to see innovation in this country,” Myers West said. “I just want the scope of innovation to be determined beyond the incentive structures of these giant companies.”

Oklo is one of the nuclear startups backed by Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI who has described AI and cheap, green energy as mutually reinforcing essentials to achieving a future marked by “abundance.”

“Fundamentally today in the world, the two limiting commodities you see everywhere are intelligence, which we’re trying to work on with AI, and energy,” he told CNBC in 2021 after investing $375 million in Helion Energy, a nuclear fusion startup that Altman chairs. Microsoft last year agreed to buy power from Helion starting in 2028. Oklo, which Altman also chairs, is focused on the opposite reaction, fission, which generates energy by splitting an atom; fusion does so by merging atomic nuclei.

Representatives for Altman, through his special acquisition company AltC, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In rural southeastern Idaho, Oklo is working to build a small-scale nuclear powerhouse that could fuel data centers like the ones OpenAI and its competitors need. But the company also wants to supply mixed-use communities and industrial facilities, and is already contracted to build two commercial plants in southern Ohio.

A rendering of an Oklo nuclear plant facility.
A nuclear plant Oklo wants to build in Idaho would look more like a sleek ski chalet than the Cold War-era versions with their iconic curved towers.Oklo / Gensler

As the United States moves toward wide-scale electric vehicle adoption and decarbonization, “the amount of energy we’re going to need to do that is huge,” said Oklo CEO and co-founder Jacob DeWitte. “Also heating and cooking — if we want to electrify those processes, you’re going to need even more.”

Oklo has found getting regulators on board harder than finding potential customers.

In 2022, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees commercial nuclear power plants and materials, denied the company’s application for the design of its Idaho “Aurora” powerhouse, saying it hadn’t provided enough safety information. In October, the Air Force rescinded its intent to award a contract for a microreactor pilot program to power a base in Alaska.

“You’ve got new physics, you have to use new models. You have to do all sorts of stuff that’s different than what they’re used to,” DeWitte said of the NRC. Oklo is now working to satisfy regulators, he said, acknowledging agency officials must “do their independent job of ensuring this meets adequate safety requirements.”

Oklo’s proposed 13,000-square-foot Aurora powerhouse, featuring a 15-megawatt fission reactor, is smaller than earlier plants and looks more like a sleek ski chalet than the Cold War-era ones with their iconic curved towers. The plant set to be built at the Idaho National Laboratory, a research facility where Oklo has been given an Energy Department grant to test recycling nuclear waste into new fuel. DeWitte says the design is safer, too, citing the use of liquid metal as a coolant rather than water.

The nuclear power industry hasn’t meaningfully expanded its share of the U.S. energy mix for decades. It has chugged along despite popular opposition fueled by infrequent but devastating accidents like those in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986 and in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. Even the newest nuclear plants still generate waste that can remain dangerously radioactive for centuries, raising the need for effective disposal or recycling efforts like the one Oklo is testing.

But as the climate crisis accelerates, most Americans now support expanding nuclear energy — 57%, up from 43% in 2020, a Pew Research survey found last year. Nuclear power currently makes up only 19% of the nation’s overall energy generation, with 93 commercial reactors operating today, down from a peak of 112 in 1990. By one estimate, up to 800 gigawatts of new nuclear power will be needed by 2050 to meet current green energy targets.

Unit 3’s reactor and cooling tower stand at Georgia Power Co.'s Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, Ga.
A nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, Ga. Nuclear power makes up about 19% of U.S. energy generation.John Bazemore / AP file

But as tech firms sprint toward AI, many data centers are already struggling to add capacity fast enough to remain affordable, with data center rents jumping nearly 16% between 2022 and last year alone. The demand crunch is one reason major industry players have been ramping up their nuclear investments.

Microsoft signed a deal last summer with Constellation, a top nuclear power plant operator, to add nuclear-generated electricity to its Virginia data centers. The year before, Google took part in a $250 million fundraising round for the fusion startup TAE Technologies. And in late 2021, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and other investors raised over $130 million for Canadian nuclear company General Fusion.

For tech firms, it makes sense to tap directly into nuclear plants “instead of sourcing electricity from the grid,” said Ross Matzkin-Bridger, a senior director at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group focused on reducing nuclear and biological risks. In addition to being clean, he noted, many recent nuclear projects are also compact. “You can fit a lot more energy per acre in nuclear energy than you can with any other technology,” he said.

Beyond Silicon Valley, “big investment firms are actually starting to believe that this is going to take off,” said Ayan Paul, a research scientist at Northeastern University who studies AI. “People have started to believe that these kinds of energies are going to fuel our population.”

But some experts warn that efforts to expand nuclear power shouldn’t be rushed, no matter how fast demand is growing.

“We need nuclear power to get to a low-carbon future,” said Ahmed Abdulla, assistant mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Carleton University. But for engineering projects that have historically taken decades, the regulatory process needs to be a methodical one, he said: “There is a chance to make serious mistakes if we sprint to the goal.”

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