US military withdraws offer to Oklo for microreactor

22 November 2023

The US Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) has rescinded a notice of intent to award (NOITA) a contract made in August on behalf of the Department of the Air Force to US-based fission technology company Oklo to provide heat and electricity to the Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks in Alaska. This was part of the Air Force's micro-reactor pilot programme initiated in response to the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorisation Act, which required DOD to identify potential military locations to site, construct, and operate a micro-reactor.

In late September, the DLA’s energy arm revoked its decision, citing a need for “further consideration” of its obligations under a specific military contracting regulation, according to a memo sent to Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp (USNC), a competing bidder for the contract. The memo, obtained by Northern Journal, noted: “The Government tentatively selected Oklo as the apparently successful offeror and pending awardee for the small modular reactor requirements at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska under the subject solicitation via Notice of Intent to Award on 22 August 2023. On September 29, 2023, DLA Energy rescinded the original Notice to give further consideration to the agency’s responsibilities pursuant to DFARS 215.306, and take whatever actions are required as a result.” That regulation says the military should engage in post-bidding negotiations and discussions for contracts worth $100m or more.

In an emailed response to Northern Journal, DLA spokeswoman Michelle McCaskill repeated the language from the memo and said all bidders that responded to the agency’s request for proposals are still under consideration. McCaskill said a “pre-filing notice of protest” of the award to Oklo had been submitted to the US Court of Federal Claims. A spokeswoman for USNC confirmed to Northern Journal that her company had made the pre-filing notice but added that a formal protest had not been filed.

The Eielson contract had attracted broad interest from the energy industry. An informational meeting about it last year was attended by a large number of companies, according to a roster published by the military. As well as USNC, these included representatives from Westinghouse, Rolls-Royce and Siemens.

Oklo’s chief executive, Jake DeWitte, said his company is letting the contracting process play out. “But we are more than excited about the opportunity,” he said. The USNC spokeswoman Mary Woollen said USNC is still “extremely interested in providing this solution to the Air Force and (is) waiting for DLA’s contracting officer to notify us of the next steps in the procurement process”.

USNC “believes it is in the best position to support the Air Force and will continue to pursue all means at its disposal to support its bid”, she wrote in Northern Journal.

Oklo is developing the Aurora microreactor, which uses heat pipes to transport heat from the reactor core to a supercritical carbon dioxide power conversion system to generate electricity. It will use HALEU fuel. Oklo says the reactor builds on the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) and space reactor legacy. EBR-II features a hexagonal fuel element with a sealed heat pipe and a passive air-cooling system. Oklo initially marketed a 1.5 MWe microreactor version of the Aurora, but has now expanded its capacity offerings from 15 MWe to 100 MWe.

Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), in August announced updates to the design of its Gen IV gas-cooled microreactor with fuel developments with a tripling of power output. The company’s Micro-Modular Reactor design can operate at various power levels from 10 MWt (3.3 MWe) to 45 MWt (15 MWe) and can work with either HALEU (19.75% enrichment) or LEU+ (9.9% enrichment). USNC is in pre-licensing engagement with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in Canada through the Global First Power joint venture with Ontario Power Generation.

At the time of the August announcement, the Air Force said the micro-reactor was expected to go online by the end of 2027, based on a directive in Congress’s 2019 military spending bill. DLA’s McCaskill said there is no revised timeline to the contracting process and that the agency still intends to meet all deadlines.

Image: Aircraft lined up on the runway at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks in Alaska (courtesy of Senior Airman Keith Holcomb / US Air Force)

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