Oklo’s Director of Marketing & External Relations, Bonita Chan, interviews Rob Carroll, the Development Manager at Oklo, to discuss how to leverage advanced technology to tackle the world’s challenges. Watch the full conversation here and read the abbreviated highlights below.
Rob, you have an impressive background in the tech and start-up sectors. How did your experiences lead you to Oklo?
Before Oklo, I worked at a venture firm in the Middle East. I was responsible for helping fund Arab-led start-ups, mostly women-founded start-ups. It was such meaningful work to provide entrepreneurs with access to capital and, in turn, allow the region to gain access to more technology.
I was also at Google, where I helped build an internet infrastructure and expand internet access in Cuba. Access to the internet is key to human development, and our thesis was that Cuba had so much to share with the world, and we could help get it out there.
Leveraging technology to make a difference in the world was a very inspiring narrative for me. So, joining Oklo after I graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School was a natural next step. Climate change and energy poverty are two of the most pressing issues of our day, and what I saw in Oklo was that we could use one of the most powerful tools we have and reinvent it in a new way to help resolve those pressing issues.
Climate change and energy poverty are indeed some of the most pressing issues we face currently. How optimistic are you in seeing development and growth through access to clean, reliable, and affordable energy?
Energy use is strongly correlated with poverty alleviation and economic growth. For the hundreds of millions of people without access to electricity, the introduction of predictable, always-on energy would be transformative. Electric appliances like washing machines greatly reduce the time people spend doing household chores, freeing them to pursue an education or vocational work. Electricity enables technology like refrigeration, which preserves food and life-sustaining pharmaceutical drugs. Air conditioning enables nomadic communities to build permanent homes instead of migrating with the climate. Simple light bulbs can illuminate communities after dark, providing greater safety from physical harm and giving children more hours in the day to study. To know that Oklo is working with a technology that can deliver beyond just clean energy, but a way of life, is motivating.
In the U.S., most clean energy comes from nuclear, and therefore, the nuclear regulator plays a major role in making more emission-free power a reality. What are your views on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) being a climate agency?
We currently see 20% of our electric electricity grid coming from nuclear, which makes it an enormous carbon-free electricity source. The NRC is the gold standard of licensing nuclear reactors, and as an American, I’m very proud of the NRC for that.
I am encouraged by how the NRC is evolving with us to a point where we can license advanced reactors. As a world-leading regulator, the NRC has set the stage for accepting Oklo’s custom combined license application for review. However, much work is to be done to get to a point where the NRC is licensing many advanced reactors to solve these global issues.
I would agree with you that the NRC should be viewed as a climate agency, and I wish more folks would look at it that way. In the recent Biden executive orders, we’re seeing that the new administration is committing a lot of focus and investment to clean energy technology, which can produce jobs while helping us decarbonize. I appreciate that the Department of Energy has a seat at the table. Many other agencies have a seat at the table, but we’re not seeing the NRC. I would like to see them be agile and frankly receive the invitation to be part of this process and be involved in these climate initiatives.
Policy and politics also play a role in how quickly we can decarbonize power systems. Are you encouraged by the bipartisan support for nuclear power?
We are in a rare moment of bipartisan agreement on clean power. The climate threat has reached a point where increasingly people realize nuclear power needs to be part of this solution. I was excited to see the Democratic Party included nuclear energy and advanced fission into their platform. President Biden also mentioned advanced fission many times in his climate platform. Although the President hasn’t mentioned nuclear specifically since he’s been in office, clean energy technology has — and it’s been phrased in a way that encompasses all the good tools we have such as wind, solar, batteries, hydro, and nuclear. I’m hopeful to see what happens, and I believe we’re in a really good place in terms of objective and rational thinking around nuclear energy and advanced fission. If you look at the positive impact that nuclear energy has had on global carbon emissions and the number of lives it has saved in terms of industry safety standards, it’s all very impressive. So, I’m glad we’re coming together around nuclear technology.
Oklo will be commercializing and deploying a suite of powerhouses by the early 2020s. What inspires you to keep working towards that goal?
It motivates me to work on a product that is an elegant solution to the major problems we are facing in the world. The best part while working on the product is the opportunity to work with our brilliant team, which is a mission-driven group of climate activists. It is impressive to watch and learn from all their expertise. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but it is inspiring to know that we are leading the way in advanced fission. Having our combined license application accepted for review is such a sizeable milestone. Our track record is a clear indication that we are not waiting for someone to solve problems for us, but rather we’re making the necessary changes to make things happen ourselves.