Is This Microreactor the Future of Nuclear Architecture?

The 50-foot-tall Aurora plant, designed by Oklo, bridges old and new aspects of nuclear power.

Design by Gensler for the Aurora microreactor and power plant, by Oklo. All images courtesy of Oklo.

Although nuclear power and weapons have influenced design since the Atomic Age, a new power plant designed by Oklo, developer of a 1.5-MW passive compact fast reactor, is poised to usher in a new wave of nuclear architecture. The 50-foot-tall Aurora microreactor plant bridges old and new aspects of nuclear power in a number of ways; Oklo recently grabbed headlines with the announcement that Aurora, expected to begin running by 2024, will be core-powered by low-enriched uranium from Idaho National Laboratory. The use of HALEU (high-assay, low-enriched uranium) is unique because it capitalizes on already-used nuclear fuel that has been discarded by larger processing facilities, which often only utilize some 50% of the power potential of their core matter before replacing it. Oklo, which launched in 2013 and debuted the Aurora plant project in fall of 2019, aims to recover 90-100% of the available energy within the fuel, through their use of fast fission and fast reactors.

“We’re using the same physical reactions — we’re using fission — but almost everything else about what we’re trying to do is completely different from the industry, historically,” said Caroline Cochran in a telephone interview with Hyperallergic. Oklo’s microreactor and plant does not require water or lots of land, and the small-scale footprint enhances the possibility of meeting power needs of communities in remote locations, like small towns in Alaska — but perhaps not only their power needs. The Aurora plant also represents an evolution in nuclear design aesthetics, with a conscious effort on the part of Oklo to make their power station approachable and appealing to the surrounding community.

The A-frame shape of plant is strong, resistant to elements, and makes good use of solar angles for an array of panels.

“We’ve been thinking a lot about how do we serve their needs beyond — principally to provide electricity — but how can we also be a meeting ground?” said Cochran. “A city hall, a garden, an indoor pool, during times in Alaska when people don’t get a lot of exercise or have access to fresh greens? Things like that. How can the building itself be iconic and recognizable, but also take on the flavor of available areas?”

The company employed Gensler to home in on the vision they had for the structure, and settled on an A-frame structure that ties together a number of cultural references, practical considerations, and space efficiencies for Aurora. The team was inspired by structures including the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, and feedback on the design has likened the smooth, vaulted triangular construction to a building from Star Wars, a cathedral, a Swiss chalet … and even a few less elevated notions.

“One person thought that they were being rude to us by comparing it to an IHOP,” said Cochran, “but I think it’s kind of interesting, the different views of what it reminds them of, and I would say that it’s a good thing. We were trying to think about the community aspects that we hope to build along with it, and those will vary by the site.”

The Midcentury feel of the design is a fitting nod to the Atomic Age roots of nuclear aesthetics.

In addition to Midcentury aesthetics that reference the original era of nuclear design, A-frames are the strongest truss construction, and therefore ideal to house and protect the working aspects of the power plant — including supporting cranes that move works within the plant — but the angle of the sides also aligns well with the solar array that will tie into the power processing. In high-snow and lower-light latitudes like Alaska, the A-frame roof angle sheds snow and maximizes the exposure to sunlight. But Oklo also has more fanciful ideas for the panels, hoping to employ Sistine Solar in the implementation of custom solar panel designs, including one commissioned from artist Forest Stearns for the Aurora design, that creates a reflection of the Aurora Borealis-touched Alaskan sky.

Coming soon…Aurora lights the way for new approaches to nuclear power and design.

Everything about Oklo, including the company’s name, which references the Oklo region of the Central African state of Gabon where nuclear fission is a naturally-occurring feature of the prehistoric landscape, indicates it is a company that thinks very holistically about the role that nuclear power plays in human society, in nature, and in the universe. These nuclear innovators look toward a future where people stop in for a cup of coffee at their local power plant — dose of radiation not included — before using that power potential for deep space exploration. That’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of an A-frame structure, but for now, Oklo projects a healthy glow of confidence and potential in fast fission design and deployment.

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