From Rockets to the South Pole to Advanced Fission

Oklo’s Director of Marketing & External Relations, Bonita Chan, interviews Kelly Thomas, an Engineering Fellow at Oklo, to discuss what working at SpaceX and the South Pole have taught her. Watch the full conversation here and read the abbreviated highlights below.

What did you do at SpaceX, and what was the most valuable thing you learned there?

I was at SpaceX for just under five years, and I worked on the composite landing legs for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles. I was responsible for the structural analysis and testing of the legs and their integration into the rest of the rocket.

One of the most valuable things I learned at SpaceX was to make sure that you are asking the right questions. You could spend so much time and effort chasing the wrong question or problem. Doing the exercise of evaluating what matters will ensure that the team is congruent and not going to waste any time on the wrong questions.

After SpaceX, you moved to the South Pole for a unique research position. Can you tell me more about that position?

I was the “Cusp Research Associate” at South Pole station for 2020, including the Austral winter. My job was to monitor and perform upgrades or repairs on radars and other equipment, looking at the interaction of Earth’s upper atmosphere with the solar wind. The South Pole, being at one of the “cusps” of the Earth’s magnetic field, is one of the best places to study this interaction because the solar wind particles follow the magnetic field lines and bombard the atmosphere at the cusps — causing what we know as the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis. I was there for 13 months as part of the crew responsible for keeping the station and its experiments functional through the Austral Winter, during which there are six months with no sunlight, eight months without any planes in or out, and a small crew of 42 people.

What made you want to transition to advanced fission and join the Oklo team?

I recognized that climate change is an existential crisis for humanity. I felt like I was working on my vacation home trying to colonize Mars when my regular house was on fire. I knew I wanted to switch to a career in energy, and when I was thinking about my transition, I discovered Oklo.

I originally heard that one of Oklo’s target markets for its Aurora powerhouse was distant, remote places, such as in the Arctic. Living at the South Pole, I could personally attest to how much sense a nuclear power plant would make down there.

Every year, teams of people tractor in half a million gallons of fossil fuel to the South Pole from the coast 1000 miles away to keep the lights on and the experiments running. Burning fossil fuel for power requires a behemoth of logistics, plus personnel and money.

The two primary ways of transporting fuel to the South Pole are the three overland “Traverse” teams that tractor in about 350,000 gallons in a total of fuel each year over 1000 miles. For this effort, it takes one gallon of fuel to transport one gallon of fuel. The LC-130 Hercules aircraft, the primary workhorse for South Pole cargo and personnel, transports the remaining 165,000 gallons of fuel to the station, at an economy of two gallons spent transporting one gallon of fuel.

Due to the pandemic, all the fuel went overland this year, so a fourth Traverse team was added. When I learned all of this and experienced firsthand what it felt to be so dependent on these massive efforts, it was unbelievable that the equivalent amount of Uranium required to power a year at the South Pole would be only a kilogram, taking into account current light water reactor efficiencies of about 30%.

I reached out to Oklo, wanting to share my experience at the South Pole and say how much I believed in what they were doing, and learn about whether Antarctica would be a place they might consider. They were excited to hear from me and invited me to join their team!

What does the future of energy look like to you as we develop reactors people want?

The next few decades will be pivotal in humanity’s existence on Earth. Employing nuclear fission and commercializing advanced fission technologies can significantly curb many of the outfalls of climate change, which could detrimentally affect the global population, especially those in developing countries. From what I could find on existing research efforts, energy storage technology allowing the significant increase of renewables is still too premature to be employed at scale. And while I’m excited about nuclear fusion, it’s unclear when that will be ready for commercial use. We simply don’t have the time to wait for energy storage and fusion technology to catch up while we continue increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere — we need a technology that is clean now, and that’s why I believe nuclear fission is the answer, at least for now. It can buy us the time to develop the technology needed for a fully renewable future.

I think these next decades are going to be pivotal for humanity. Just as the past few decades significantly shaped society with the Digital Age, I believe we are heading towards the Age of Energy, where significant thought and effort will be poured into providing the entire planet with sustainable energy.




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