The financial mavens behind Bitcoin have come up with a nifty, new plan to greenwash their electricity-hogging currency. They’re talking about powering it with nuclear energy.
In recent years, Bitcoin has been under fire for the astonishing amount of electricity it requires for its virtual transactions. In February, analysts reported the renegade technology was consuming almost as much power as Argentina, after seeing demand quadruple in four years. “Mining” a dollar’s worth of Bitcoin uses three to four times as much energy as extracting the equivalent value of gold, copper, or platinum, and there’s been recent speculation that the massive carbon footprint of cryptocurrencies may give governments the path they’ve been looking for to curb its growth.
Bitcoin enthusiasts have responded with claims that they can quickly shift their rapidly-growing electricity appetite to renewable energy sources, notwithstanding the competing demand for more routine uses like heating, cooling, connectivity, and transportation. Now, they’ve come up with a plan to marry the world’s most energy-intensive libertarian currency with its most expensive, speculative electricity source.
“Amid a heated debate over Bitcoin’s environmental toll, two companies say they have an answer on mitigating some of the negative effects: Nuclear energy,” Bloomberg reports. “Power startup Oklo Inc. said it’s partnering with Bitcoin mining and hosting firm Compass Mining to introduce advanced fission to the energy-intensive process of minting new coins. It’s an effort, the companies say, to reduce fossil fuel emissions from Bitcoin mining and to diversify energy sources used by the miners.”
Oklo CEO Jacob DeWitte called the currency “a huge market opportunity for clean energy generation, especially looking forward for new generation systems.” The company plans to supply 150 megawatts of nuclear electricity in the first phase of a 20-year partnership.
While claiming its nuclear reactors “will be able to start supplying clean energy sometime in the early 2020s,” Bloomberg says, Sunnyvale, CA-based Oklo concedes the real opportunity “could be years away. The company is still in the process of seeking approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its variety of small reactors that could run on radioactive waste. It submitted an application in March 2020, right before the COVID pandemic shut the U.S. economy down, and the regulator accepted it for review about three months later. DeWitte said the NRC is mandated to conduct reviews within three years.”
Oklo’s plan is to build its small modular reactors in Idaho and Alaska, with Compass locating its “mining” computers on the sites or nearby, Bloomberg writes.
But there may be a bigger problem on the horizon for Compass: in their haste to pitch the carbon performance of their own product, they may be missing the spin from their power supplier. Nuclear analyst Mycle Schneider describes the new generation of nuclear technology as “PowerPoint reactors”, with no detailed engineering behind it.
“Here’s the reality: Most SMRs [small modular reactors] exist only as conceptual designs and are not yet licenced for construction anywhere,” the Globe and Mail reports this week. “The promised assembly lines that would churn them out like clockwork don’t exist; many vendors are early-stage companies with hardly any revenues.”
To shift that picture, “the federal government will probably have to open wide the taxpayer’s wallet,” the Globe adds. “And the industry must move quickly from bold marketing claims to commercially viable products.”
The Oklo website contains no product specifications, details, or timelines, just newsletter and social media sign-ups. The 22-person start-up “aims to build fast reactors that could use the spent fuel from conventional nuclear reactors to operate,” CNBC wrote last month. But “some experts are skeptical of Oklo’s plans, which include operating the plants without human guards or operators onsite.”
In the here and now, Bitcoin miners have been scrambling to shift their operations to Kazakhstan, after China shut down 90% of the cryptocurrency operations on its territory last month, OilPrice.com reports. The Central Asian country, which produces almost all its electricity from fossil fuels, responded by slapping an electricity surcharge on crypto “miners”.