Q&A with Deep Isolation COO Rod Baltzer

Episode 3

http://Dr.%20Thomas%20Webler

Thomas Webler

Research Fellow, Social and Environmental Research Institute and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Keene State College

Community Consent is Key to Waste Disposal

In this interview, Tom Webler, an expert in community consent and how it relates to nuclear waste disposal, shares how stakeholders play a critical role choosing a site for nuclear waste disposal.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Thomas Webler (00:00):

We don’t have everybody on board with saying, okay, we want to build one deep geological disposal site. We want to build five sites. We want geographical equity. We want, you know, to manage defense waste differently from civilian waste. There’s all these kinds of questions related to this that we, as a country, haven’t come together on.

Narrator (00:35):

Hello and welcome to Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. A series designed to explore perspectives of nuclear waste disposal. About half a million metric tons of high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide. No country has established a permanent home for spent commercial fuel. In the US alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. That fact may be surprising, but it’s not for lack of technical solutions. Experts worldwide agree that a deep geological repository would be the best final resting place for this hazardous substance. So what’s the delay you as?. The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we’re interviewing experts and stakeholders representing pieces of this complicated puzzle to give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.

In this episode, Deep Isolation Communications Manager, Kari Hulac, interviews Thomas Webler, an expert in the social science of collaborative and democratic ways of making decisions that affect the environment. Tom Webler is also an expert in community consent and how it relates to nuclear waste disposal.

At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions.

Narrator (02:19):

The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

Kari Hulac (02:26):

Hello. I’m Kari Hulac, host of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. Today, I’m talking to Tom Webler, an expert in the social science of collaborative and democratic ways of making decisions that affect the environment. Tom Webler coauthored papers and did analysis for the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. He offers suggestions on how to effectively engage stakeholders on how the US government can do a better job informing members of the public when making decisions about the storage and management of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. Tom also provided input to the Department of Energy, analyzing consent related to the siting of nuclear waste disposal facilities. Hello, Tom, and thank you so much for joining us today.

Thomas Webler (03:14):

Hello, Kari. I’m glad to be here.

Kari Hulac (03:17):

All right. First off, explain to us the fundamental elements of what consent based decision making means as it applies to nuclear waste disposal.

Thomas Webler (03:27):

Well, that’s certainly diving right into it. I think the first thing we need to keep in mind, that the kind of problem we’re talking about here is what we call collective action problem, right? It’s like, what should we do? We’ve got this problem we want to solve, however you want to define it, but we have to somehow decide what to do. And we have to decide that together, right? So it’s a collective action problem, but it doesn’t mean we need a hundred percent consensus. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to agree on everything, but you know, we have to have enough of an idea of what, how to move ahead with this. And a lot of people need to be involved in making these, this kind of decision or the decisions around how to manage spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. Right?

Thomas Webler (04:18):

And there’s a lot of different decisions that have to be made if we’re talking about locating a facility in a certain community, that’s usually what we mean by siting. So when we talk about consent-based siting, usually thinking mostly about that community, right. And what they need to, what they need to signify in order to allow a project developer to move ahead with actually implementing a technical solution. I mean, there’s a lot of, a lot of associated questions that have to do with that, right? Like who should be involved in giving consent? That’s a big question. Should it be the community that has the political jurisdiction in which the project cement is actually poured in? What about the transportation communities along the way, if the waste has to move through other communities to get there, what kind of consent should they give? Where should they be in the process? What about neighboring communities? What about the source communities where the spent nuclear fuel is currently located? Right. So there’s a lot of questions about this.

Kari Hulac (05:32):

Okay. That makes sense. That makes sense. So one of the key pieces you wrote for Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission, the BRC for short, was a report that made recommendations for how to develop public engagement around nuclear waste disposal. So I think if we dive into that, that will help give a nice example of collective action as you’ve just discussed. So can you summarize those recommendations that you made to the BRC? And then I’m sure in doing that, you looked at some past failures in stakeholder engagement. So let us know how that informed your recommendations for how we can do better in the future.

Thomas Webler (06:15):

Right. So my work for the BRC was done in collusion with my colleague, Seth Tuler and Eugene Rosa. We kind of all communicated together about this. And we also, with a bunch of other social scientists had a piece in Science Magazine called Nuclear Waste: Knowledge Waste? about this issue. So a lot of people have been thinking about it, not just me. I build on a lot of work from other people. We advise them that there needs to be some sort of national consensus on the definition of the problem and the preferred technical solution. So we’ve seen this and a lot of countries have said, we want the geological disposal, right? This is the solution that’s been preferred, but we haven’t had in this country a kind of national conversation about, about this. And seems to me that this is one of the biggest problems we face right now is that we don’t have everybody on board with saying, okay, we want to build one deep geological disposal site. We want to build five sites. We want geographical equity. We want, you know, to manage defense waste differently from civilian waste. There’s all these kinds of questions related to this, that we have a country, as a country haven’t come together on yet. And without that, it’s really hard to envision how to move forward. And we were really hoping that the BRC would have done that. But it didn’t really recommend how to move forward with that.

Kari Hulac (07:59):

Would you say that’s how the BRC kind of missed its mark, so to speak? It should have gone more further, laid out a more specific plan for next steps.

Thomas Webler (08:12):

Yeah, I think it is. And we’ve seen, you know, recent legislation proposed by Dianne Feinstein, for example, they defined consent just as support by the local elected leaders. Right? This is, and this is not thinking very deeply about consent. I mean, that’s kind of where you would go with your first answer, right? What does consent mean? Oh, the County commissioners or the city council voted for it, that’s what they mean by consent, but we have to think, realize that that’s probably not sufficient for a problem of this magnitude, not just magnitude in terms of potential risks and hazard, but also longevity. The commitment that a community is making to host this facility for basically as long as we can imagine human civilization continuing. So the elected officials we’ve got now were probably elected because of whatever, a school board mission or a bond question or a new highway development, something like that.

Thomas Webler (09:23):

They weren’t elected to make decisions about permanent high-level, deep, high-level nuclear waste disposal facilities. So I think we need to think a little more deeply about who can give consent than just saying it’s the elected officials. So that’s one place the BRC I think could have taken it further. Another thing about the BRC that we’ve talked about was trust that we tried to emphasize the failures of previous efforts by the Department of Energy and focusing on nuclear issues, really the DOE or including their weapons production programs, you know, the nuclear weapons production sites and the cleanups on those sites. And of course the attempts to site, you know, under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. So there have been a lot of efforts by their Department of Energy over time. And many of these have been, let’s say underperforming, right?

Thomas Webler (10:33):

They have often ended up decreasing public trust in the Department of Energy and in the federal government at large, they’ve created a lot of stakeholder opposition. They’ve created a tremendous amount of locally driven activist-oriented, highly educated activists and local sites who now basically don’t trust anything that the DOE or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say, right. They are constantly on their backs and it’s created an environment of extreme distrust. And that’s very hard to get out of this. Something we call the asymmetry of trust. Trust is very easy to lose and it’s very hard to gain. And so the experiences that we’ve seen in the past, while DOE has done some good things, especially with the site-specific advisory boards of the nuclear waste production sites. We’ve seen some, we saw some nice progress there and how they interacted with those boards more effectively over time and did came community trust, but that took years and years and years. And I’m sorry to say that a lot of the history has not been that positive.

Kari Hulac (11:51):

That is tough, especially for companies like Deep Isolation and who want to do something about this problem. I mean, what advice would you give to us and to others in the communities who do want to resolve this issue? I mean, what, what is the path forward to, to get past this lack of trust?

Thomas Webler (12:17):

Well, moving forward into… The most important things we can do… Well, trust basically is composed of several characteristics. One is caring. You’ve got to demonstrate that you truly care about the other parties with whom you’re interacting. So the most important thing there is obviously to demonstrate the safety case. This is utterly important that there be safety criteria that are never violated, that are transparent, and clearly are not violated. So caring, that’s number one. Number two is commitment, which means a commitment to a shared definition of the problem, a commitment to the same values set that we’re going to operate while we’re trying to solve this problem, which is mutual effect. Mutual respect, I mean. And making, making decisions on technical evidence, not on emotions or ideologically driven decisions. And so on. The third thing is …caring, committed… competence, which means doing what you do well, right?

Thomas Webler (13:35):

And fourth is prediction. Predictability. These are the four characteristics of trust. Predictability means that you follow through with what you say you would do, that the parties can anticipate your next move because you’ve been consistent. It doesn’t mean that you’re stuck into one mode of thinking and acting and you never learn or change. It does mean you can learn and change, but that your actions are predictable in the sense that what another party would consider a reasonable, reasonable thing to do. So these four things make up trust. We don’t have that today. We’re lacking that. So anybody who wants to move ahead with this, whether it’s DI, Deep Isolation, or it’s some other Department of Energy or government independent institution, it’s going to have to specifically understand that it needs to make progress on all those things and it needs to do so in an environment that’s highly distrust, full of distrust. And so we have this asymmetry of trust. It’s easy to lose. It’s hard to get. The most important thing that a institution could do to earn trust is to give the community the power and authority to close down, turn off an operation, a facility with no penalties or negative consequences. But having a strong corporate culture of integrity and honesty would be vital.

Kari Hulac (15:11):

Well, and you touched on that earlier about the lack of national consensus on a solution. Deep Isolation’s perspective is there is scientific consensus on the deep geological burial, but like you say, that has to be embraced by the nation, the government, and all the other stakeholders. What, what have you seen, or what would you recommend in trying to reach that consensus on the technological solution to get there? I mean, that’s, it seems like a big step.

Thomas Webler (15:44):

Yeah. Well, this was the first thing that Canada did. That they had what’s called the Seaborn Panel. And Seaborn was a guy who ran the panel and they went around Canada and held public meetings to talk about here’s our problem. We’ve got all this stuff we’ve made. We don’t want to keep it above ground anymore. What should we do with it? Shoot it into the sun, whatever, you know, put it in the bottom of the ocean. You know, they go through all the possible solutions and they talked about it. They brought in experts and they listened to people and people kind of sat around and said, you know what? This is what makes most sense for Canada, a deep geological repository. And I think, you know, what we recommended to the BRC that the United States should have a similar discussion like that. I think if you give everyone a chance to have their say, and then you come to a reasonable decision together, the kind of it’s, it allows a lot of groups to say, we’re moving on. Okay. We talked about that. We decided we’re not going back there.

Kari Hulac (16:53):

So here we are eight years after the BRC report was issued and still we’re still struggling with this. Can you give us any perspective and bring us up to speed? Why there hasn’t been any implementation? It sounds like, you know, with the Canadian example, there’s good, you know, a good case right there for at least getting the discussion started about the solution. So what’s going on there?

Thomas Webler (17:18):

So the Department of Energy actually set up a consensus-based siting program in the Office of Nuclear Waste, right? And they were developing this. I did a little work for them in order to try to think about how we start to put these ideas into practice. They started holding community-based meetings to hear what the public thought about consent-based siting. And I thought they were doing a pretty good job of that, going out, listening. They weren’t saying, Hey, we’ve sat in our offices in Washington and we’ve decided this is consent-based siting, right? They said we’ve got some ideas. We’re going to come out, listen to the public, listen to stakeholders, do a lot of listening. That’s what the Seaborn Panel in Canada did. I thought they were on the right track with that. But then of course we have an election in 2016, then like so many things, we retrograded back to old solutions and they closed down that whole office. All those webpages are gone. All the learning that happened on consent-based siting has been either erased or mothballed somewhere in the archives of the Department of Energy. So again, what are we doing? What are we agreeing to do as a country?

Kari Hulac (18:36):

So given all this that we’ve discussed today, is it hard to feel optimistic about their future? Or what do you, what work are you doing right now with this? What, what do you advise as the next best steps for us as a nation or for us, Deep Isolation, in private industry? What, what do you think moving forward?

Thomas Webler (18:59):

Look, one of the big problems is you’ve got to make sure that there’s not going to be political gamesmanship. You know, we have, you know, there was some reasonable plan under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which just all went awry after the politicians got involved in it, right. They were supposed to propose several deep repository sites and in different parts of the country, there was this idea of equity. Somehow that they’d been, you know, wasn’t just going to be one site at Yucca Mountain, right, there were going to be several of them. And then all that got changed when Congress got involved. So, you know, you need a promise that Congress is not going to get involved. And, you know, personally, I think Congress needs to set up, tell the DOE to do something, set up an independent body. That’s isolated from any congressional or presidential executive branch manipulations. Operates completely independently, even more independently than the Fed, but nowadays we don’t even see any independence at the Fed or any of these places. Right. Everything’s kind of been controlled now by the executive branch. So ideally you’d want to set up some sort of independent body and then that body would have to move forward with establishing national consensus and kind of a plan for action.

Kari Hulac (20:26):

Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Tom, and I want to thank everyone who tuned in to this episode of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.

Thomas Webler (20:36):

Thanks Kari. Nice talking to you.

Narrator (20:40):

Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and feel free to send any comments or suggestions to podcast@deepisolation.com. You can visit deepisolation.com to learn more. At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions.

Narrator (21:24):

The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

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Episode 2

http://Rod%20McCullum,%20NEI

Rod McCullum

Senior Director, Used Fuel and Decommissioning Nuclear Energy Institute

Disposal Impasse Impacts the Future of Next Generation Reactors

In this interview, Rod McCullum offers an insider’s perspective on commercial nuclear waste disposal and explains why any failure to solve this problem could threaten the development of the next generation of nuclear energy reactors.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Rod McCullum (00:00):

The good news with the nuclear industry is we contain all of our wastes. All of our by-product waste. The bad news for the nuclear industry is we still got them.

Narrator (00:21):

Hello and welcome to Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. A series designed to explore perspectives of nuclear waste disposal. About half a million metric tons of high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide. No country has established a permanent home for spend commercial fuel. In the US alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. That fact may be surprising, but it’s not for lack of technical solutions. Experts worldwide agree that a deep geological repository would be the best final resting place for this hazardous substance. So what’s the delay you ask? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we’re interviewing experts and stakeholders representing pieces of this complicated puzzle to give you a clearer picture of nuclear waste, the whole story.

In this episode, Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker and Deep Isolation advisor, David Hoffman, talks to Rod McCullum, Senior Director of Used Fuel and Decommissioning of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Rod gives us an insider’s perspective on commercial nuclear waste disposal and explains why any failure to solve this problem could affect the development of the next generation of nuclear energy reactors.

At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

David Hoffman (02:17):

So Rod, I’d first like you to tell me in your own words, even though you represent an organization, how you feel, what is the situation today in terms of nuclear waste. What’s going on in the United States today?

Rod McCullum (02:31):

Well, the situation is it’s, it’s like the beginning of that Dickens novel, the best of times, the worst of times. We have a very effective industrial infrastructure to manage nuclear waste, the dry cask storage industry. We’ve loaded 3000 of these dry cask storage systems at virtually every nuclear plant in the country. They’re safe. They’re, they’re tested. This has been incident-free. They are licensed for as long as 60 years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said that they’re good for at least a hundred. That being said, they’re all still at the plant sites, including the decommissioned sites. So that’s, that’s the best of times is that we have this tremendous industrial success story here.

Rod McCullum (03:13):

Dry cask storage didn’t exist before 1986 and now we have 3000 of them and they’ve been very effective and that lets us keep discharging waste from the plants and safely storing it. I’ve always said the good news with the nuclear industry is we contain all of our wastes. All of our by-product waste. The bad news for the nuclear industry is we’ve still got them. So here we have this dilemma where we’re very good at storing it but we need to move it and free up these sites as the older plants shut down so we can build the next-generation plants.

David Hoffman (03:44):

Is this costing the industry money? That is, how does the industry feel about the fact that year after year, the public is paying to keep these things above ground, which I don’t think was the idea initially. So if you could just say, tell me, how does the industry feel about the fact that billions of dollars are being spent?

Rod McCullum (04:05):

The industry is very frustrated and quite frankly, the billions of dollars that is being spent, the government just came out yesterday or last week with a new report that, that there’s already been $8 billion in damages collected for the federal government’s failure to remove nuclear waste from these, these are litigation settlements. Now, these reimburse the utilities for their costs. The greatest cost to the industry is the reputational damage we suffer. Here at NEI, we are heavily invested in the next generation of reactors. We have two dozen new reactor vendors. They’ve got great things on the drawing board. When I meet with them, the story I hear is one of the big constraints we have on getting investment capital for this. And that investment capital is private capital investment capital was also to what extent can the government get involved and that’s political. So when you have this issue, the reputational damage of not having a final solution, it doesn’t matter how successful we are at storing it in dry cask systems. It doesn’t matter how long we can store it in dry cask systems. Nuclear is the nation’s biggest form of carbon-free energy. In order for us to move nuclear forward, instead of preserving the existing fleet we have today when we want to do that, we want to build the fleet of tomorrow, and we’ve got to be able to tell investors, we’ve got to be able to tell Congress, we got a final solution to the waste problem. We still have all our wastes.

David Hoffman (05:28):

You’re saying the industry today is looking at new opportunities, new possibilities, making this work better. Tell me a bit more about that.

Rod McCullum (05:35):

The first nuclear reactors were designed to be cooled by water to drive steam turbines, just like every other thermal power plant. You heat up water. You make steam drive turbines. That’s cause how we knew how to build power plants. Well, it turns out that maybe when you’re talking about how neutrons move around inside a reactor when you’re talking about how steam interacts with the materials that we put around nuclear fuel in a reactor, and I’m not taking you over towards what happened at Fukushima and what happened at Three Mile Island, you know, maybe water cools. So you’ve, you’ve got some molten salt designs, sodium designs, you’ve got different gas-cooled designs, different types of fuels, even in the existing fleet. We are now innovating and putting in what we call accident tolerant fuels, which have different coatings, different cladding, and can really up the game of the existing reactors, both in terms of safety and in being able to, to produce more power. In 2018, we had our best year ever. We generated more nuclear, carbon-free energy than the industry ever had. Only 97 reactors. We had as many as 104, and we’re going to up the gain on those existing reactors. But we also, we’re looking at the next fleet and it gets down to the reputational damage. How do we address that?

David Hoffman (06:49):

You have children. Do you believe personally?

Rod McCullum (06:53):

I can tell you that when I was in high school in 1970s, I wanted to be a lawyer because that was where all the money was. And maybe I’ll get to be president someday. You know, I was big and idealistic. I was not big. I was just idealistic. I had big ideas and thoughts, so I wanted to be a lawyer. So because I wanted to be a lawyer, I was on the high school debate team. One year, the debate topic for that year was energy policy. And so I got to debate both sides of nuclear energy. And I decided, this is where I want to be, because I was thinking about the environment. I had a senior class project, right? Built a solar collector and heated water for, for a trade school in town, you know? And so I was all about, and this was before global warming, but I just saw the stuff. I was in a Midwestern, dirty industrial town. I wanted a clean Midwestern town. And so, you know, I was all about this cleaner energy. And I, after debating the topic of nuclear for such a period of time on both sides for a whole year, I decided, I decided I wanted to be a nuclear engineer. What really cinched the deal for me was Three Mile Island happened during my senior year of high school. And so not only did I believe we needed carbon-free nuclear energy, I believed that we needed a lot more engineers to make it work.

David Hoffman (08:01):

Put yourself personally, and your family near one of these towns. I’m not talking about Hanford and Savannah. I’m talking about one of these places where it’s now above ground in these casks.

Rod McCullum (08:11):

I put my family in the shadow of nuclear facilities, a lot of my career because I’ve worked in nuclear plants. My wife, who’s a nurse, has trained on how to handle radioactive patients. You know, so yes, I, I am comfortable with nuclear safety enough that I don’t mind putting my family near it. But I also know that either my kids who both didn’t choose to become engineers, they’re both something else in their young adult lives. They would see a dry cask storage facility and think of it differently if they drove by and saw something that was just a surface facility for something I told them was, you know, 2000 feet below the ground.

David Hoffman (08:51):

When I visited one of the plants, you see guys with machine guns out in front and fences, it’s kind of scary. You’re absolutely right below ground, it’s no longer as scary, I mean, life goes on. In fact, there’s real estate people who are looking to do something with that land once it’s, once it’s below ground.

Rod McCullum (09:11):

Yes. Which plant did you visit?

David Hoffman (09:13):

I visited one in Maine. Maine Yankee.

Rod McCullum (09:16):

Yeah, that’s the only one in Maine. And so what you saw there was, was the epitome of why we need to put solutions in place for this problem because you have a beautiful coastal site in Maine. The reactor has been completely demolished. The only facility left there is the dry cask and they are surrounded by intimidating fences. And there are intimidating looking people with intimidating weapons standing around those fences. So, but if you took those casks away, which could easily be done, those casts all are licensed for transportation. Or, and I don’t, I don’t want to say the people of Maine would be happy with Deep Isolation going into their ground. I’m not saying they’re not, but if, you know, if you could do something with that material, other than store it in those casks, that site would be back to, it would be just as beautiful as any other that stretch that coastline.

David Hoffman (10:06):

Most people felt they wanted to get rid of it. Yet, whenever you say “truck it to Yucca Mountain“, they didn’t want to do that either. So there’s a lot of fear about this and there’s a lot of misunderstanding and I want to thank you for your honesty, your clarity and your personal view towards this. It gives me a certain faith that going forward, and I want to know if you have that faith, things can improve once the government stops locking everything up.

Rod McCullum (10:33):

Yes. If we get past the politics, I believe enough is known by the scientists. The geologic disposal is easy. If the politics isn’t so hard and I’m hopeful that the more solutions we can put on the table here, whether we’re, we’re moving it a little bit, whether we’re moving it halfway across the country, transportations well-established, but we need a solution that the scientists have confidence in, but the politicians don’t obstruct.

Narrator (11:02):

Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and feel free to send any comments or suggestions to podcast@deepisolation.com. You can visit deepisolation.com to learn more. At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy and disposal solutions. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

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Episode 1

http://Nuclear%20waste%20expert%20Arjun%20Makhijani.

Arjun Makhijani

President of Science Matters, LLC

Nuclear Waste Disposal Difficulties Plague the Industry

In this episode, Arjun Makhijani, an electrical and nuclear engineer, speaks candidly about the weaknesses of various nuclear waste disposal methods.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Arjun Makhijani (00:11):

If we don’t do that, if we just leave this near rivers and lakes forever, it’s going to ruin the water. It’s going to ruin the land with a very high likelihood. So we need to do geologic isolation.

Narrator (00:25):

Hello, and welcome to Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. A series designed to explore perspectives of nuclear waste disposal. About half a million metric tons of high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide. No country has established a permanent home for spent commercial fuel. In the US alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. That fact may be surprising, but it’s not for lack of technical solutions. Experts worldwide agree that a deep geological repository would be the best final resting place for this hazardous substance. So what’s the delay you ask? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we’re interviewing experts and stakeholders representing pieces of this complicated puzzle to give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.

In this episode, Emmy award-winning documentary, filmmaker, and Deep Isolation adviser, David Hoffman talks to Arjun Makhijani, President of Science Matters, LLC. Arjun is an electrical and nuclear engineer who speaks candidly about the weaknesses of various nuclear waste disposal methods. At Deep isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions.

Narrator (02:06):

The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

David Hoffman (02:15):

So Arjun. High level nuclear fuel waste. What are the facts? What is the situation today?

Arjun Makhijani (02:23):

So when you generate energy in the nuclear power reactor, you put uranium fuel in it, and then it fissions. That’s how you produce energy. And it creates very highly radioactive fission products. The two pieces of the fission are very radioactive, most of it. This stuff is so radioactive that if Evel Knievel drove his motorcycle at 60 miles an hour over the 12 feet or so of the spent fuel rod bundles, right after it was taken out of the reactor, you would be dead before he reached the end. This stuff also contains plutonium, but 1% of the spent fuel is plutonium. And if it’s separated from the spent fuel, it can be used to make bombs. And so this material presents very peculiar hazards. It’s both extremely radioactive and dangerous to health. If people come in close contact with it, and then it also has nuclear bomb usable material in large quantities. We’ve got 80,000 tons of this stuff in the USA, and a lot more, a few times more around the world.

David Hoffman (03:42):

Where is it Arjun? Where is it?

Arjun Makhijani (03:45):

So we have 60 odd sites where we have nuclear reactors and the spent fuel is stored at the reactor site. Because it’s so hot when it comes out of the reactor, they’re pools like swimming pools where the spent fuel must be stored and cooled. Underwater spent fuel pools weren’t designed to hold used fuel worth decades. They were designed for a small amount, spent fuel, and then the spent fuel was supposed to be valuable for its plutonium and uranium content. And that turned out not to be the case. So now what we have is a kind of a very special situation. The spent fuel pools are very densely packed. They put more and more spent fuel in them, 10, 20, 25, years worth. And then when they’re really packed full, they take out some of the spent fuel and store it in giant casks that are dry casks.

David Hoffman (04:46):

Why is this so difficult for the government? You’d think that it’s science that would solve the problem, but apparently, that’s not the case.

Arjun Makhijani (04:55):

The problem with this stuff is so long as it’s stored, you know, it’s, it’s okay. It’s not hurting anybody. The workers you have to take care of. Of course, the workers who are maintaining all that, but all of these materials are corrodable. They don’t last forever. And so the idea was to dispose of it in a deep geologic mine which you know, where it might do less damage.

David Hoffman (05:26):

One, would putting it into something below ground tell me would be safer? And two, everybody knows about Yucca Mountain. I thought that was the idea we’re going to somehow trailer it or truck it, or train it, all this stuff out to Yucca mountain and put it in a big hole.

Arjun Makhijani (05:42):

After looking at all the options for what you could do with this stuff that lasts for thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years, was to put it in a deep mine. In my opinion, there’s nothing good to do with it. There’s no safe solution. So when some, when you’re trying to predict for hundreds of thousands of years, your formulas will fail at a certain point. Your containers will also fail. And as we studied this more, as good geologists got involved, rather than physicists, they realize that these containers will leak. So the problem became, how should we package this stuff? And how should we minimize the damage over the long term because we know they’re going to leak. And so where should we put it? Should we put it in Yucca mountain? Should we put it in Hanford? Should we put it in the salt, salt domes in Texas or New Mexico?

David Hoffman (06:39):

What happened? Did that solve the problem? Not perfect as you say, but better.

Arjun Makhijani (06:46):

So the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, I think is a good example of science and politics that were married reasonably well for a very difficult problem. So far so good. But then things started to get screwed up and politics started to enter in a bad way. Partly nobody wants the stuff in their backyard. So in the West, there were nine sites and there were supposed to be narrowed down to three. And then the three were supposed to be investigated intensively and compared, so we could find the best one. Now, as it turned out that many of the sites were in areas, you know, like in the panhandle of Texas, there was a tremendous amount of resistance from the farmers. It’s about the largest aquifer in the country. So there was a lot of opposition.

David Hoffman (07:45):

Was it crazy opposition was sane opposition, in your opinion?

David Hoffman (07:50):

You know, I wouldn’t say crazy opposition. I think there is no, because every site is going to have some problems. And we’re talking about very long period of time. People get very concerned and then you’ve got to bring this stuff by truck or train, as you were saying. And today we are even more aware that, you know, there can be terrorist attacks on these trucks and trains. You could, you could have a real mess. The problem became is that as the pressure on the Department of Energy opposition from politically sensitive places like Texas grew it picked three sites, one in Texas and one in Nevada, the Yucca Mountain site, and Hanford. And the Hanford and Yucca mountain sites had been already scientifically shown to be inappropriate by the National Academy.

Arjun Makhijani (08:43):

So this became a pretty big problem. I, somebody like me who supports geologic disposal, although reluctantly as the least bad thing to do. It became a problem for me because I could not support Hanford and I could not support Yucca mountain because they were transparently bad sites, politically selected. In my opinion, Yucca mountain is the worst single site that has been investigated in the United States. And now I’m not a geologist. So I thought before I say that more publicly as I am doing now, I should ask an eminent geologist whom I know quite well. And I say, what do you think if I say this? Do you think, if you say that I’m wrong, I’ll stop saying it. And he said, well, let me put it this way. If a freshman geology student said Yucca mountain was a good site, I would flunk them.

David Hoffman (09:45):

Well, then I’m glad that scientists are looking at alternatives. And I know you’re an expert at least on explaining these burial ideas.

Arjun Makhijani (09:56):

So we have three concepts now. We had two before and now we have three concepts of how you might geologically isolate this waste. One was this building a mine and, you know, putting waste canisters in it, Yucca Mountain, or Hanford, or some other place. And the other has been since the 1980s known they’re called vertical boreholes. You basically drill a hole thousands and thousands of feet, a couple of miles. And then you put a canister of waste and then you seal that you put another canister waste on top of it. And you have a, basically a vertical pile of canisters that the topmost canister would be quite deep. And so then you kind of seal the rest of it and you have a vertical geologic disposal. The advantages are you don’t have to build a mine. You have one borehole. We know how to make boreholes. The disadvantages, you can’t put a lot of waste in one borehole. So now you need hundreds and hundreds of boreholes. Each one of which has a little bit of damage around which you have to seal, and you have to seal a lot of places and characterize a lot of places. So now the number of places that can be have multiplied, but the amount of waste that we can store at each place has gone down. So become a different kind of problem. Now, as you know, this company, Deep Isolation had come up with a new idea based on fracking technology without the fracking. So fracking technologies. First, you make drill a hole vertically, and then you have a horizontal deviation of that hole that could go out a mile or so.

Arjun Makhijani (11:47):

And they thought, well, we won’t do the fracking. We’ll just take a bundle of spent fuel, put it in a canister and put it in the horizontal part. Now I think that has certain advantages over vertical boreholes.

David Hoffman (12:01):

Why would horizontal be any better than vertical?

Arjun Makhijani (12:04):

Well, because I think the, the path of the waste back up is more complicated. And also the amount of waste per canister is smaller. So this waste is hot. Remember temperature hot. In a mine, when you put a large amount of waste in one drift in a mine, it causes the water around it to boil that’s, that’s how hot it is. Now. You boil, you condense you, boil, you corrode everything. That’s part of the mechanism of leakage. One of the mechanisms. If you have a horizontal borehole with one spent fuel bundle per canister, the thermal stresses on the rocks are going to be lower. So they may not crack as easily, but now you need a very large number of horizontal boreholes.

David Hoffman (12:58):

It seems like something has to be done. Everything is not perfect. You’ve made that clear. There’s expense here. We’re not stopping building nuclear weapons, although God, most listeners of this podcast, hope we do. That’s not where we are. You have children. What do you hope for here?

Arjun Makhijani (13:20):

So the added waste from nuclear weapons is no longer an issue. We’re not making more plutonium for nuclear weapons. The United States, Russia, they all have more plutonium from on the weapons side than they know what to do with. The main problem with plutonium and spent fuel, now new problems is waste from, from reactors. Right now, the spent fuel casks, the dry casks are visible from offsite. They are, they are more or less targetable. They’re not in buildings. They have a very prominent infrared signature, you know, to make it more targetable.

David Hoffman (14:04):

Well, you have people like Bill Gates and others that I believe in supporting nuclear power as one of the solutions to our current energy crisis. Right? So let’s assume that’s not going to go away. Should America, and is anybody in the world going to these newer borehole solutions?

Arjun Makhijani (14:29):

So, you know, geologic isolation is the least bad approach by far. So if we don’t do that, if we just leave this near rivers and lakes forever, it’s going to ruin the water. It’s going to ruin the land with a very high likelihood. So we need to do geologic isolation. We have three approaches. We have the one that has been most investigated, big mines and sealing up the mines, there vertical boreholes and this new horizontal borehole. I think we should investigate all three. It’s quite possible that all three would be needed for different kinds of waste because we have the spent fuel, but we also have plutonium-contaminated waste. We have high-level waste that’s in glass logs. So I think we need a fresh start with the idea that geologic isolation is necessary. And then let’s compare these three things there are pluses and minuses. Let’s make some investment in the new things. Vertical boreholes, I think the government has invested some money. Oak Ridge National Lab has done some studies as to what it will take. And the horizontal boreholes has had very little investment and I think we should invest without putting waste in it. We should invest some real money in looking at the geology, looking at the pluses and minuses, drilling some boreholes, seeing whether we can get the cylinders in and out, how much damage there is around the boreholes, what kind of sealing methods we would use.

David Hoffman (16:12):

There’s always need to be another priority. There’s always a priority that’s ahead of this priority. Should we move up the priority or is this sort of something we should take care of when we have the money?

Arjun Makhijani (16:23):

No, the money is there. So the government’s been collecting the money from nuclear power ratepayers since 1982. And it stopped a few years ago when the Yucca Mountain project was canceled. So the government has a lot of money that is, should be dedicated to nuclear spent fuel disposal, but it is not being dedicated to that. More on top of that, because the government promised to start taking the spent fuel away from reactor sites, starting January 1998 and defaulted on its promise, the utilities have sued the government, and now we, the taxpayers, you and me, and, you know, millions of others are paying fines to the nuclear power plant owners because the government defaulted on that promise and those fines are non-trivial. So we need to stop paying those fines. Start doing, start actually moving forward. We need to get off the Yucca mountain. It’s a bad site. Let’s get a fresh start. Let’s look at these three approaches that we have had and with some dispatch and some real resources going forward.

David Hoffman (17:41):

I want to thank you for doing this with me. Your opinion is very well appreciated by me and I hope by the audiences listening. So thank you, Arjun.

Arjun Makhijani (17:49):

I hope so, David, thank you very much for being on, for having me on your show.

Narrator (17:55):

Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and feel free to send any comments or suggestions to podcast@deepisolation.com. You can visit deepisolation.com to learn more. At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

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Berkeley, CA – Deep Isolation, Inc., a leading innovator in nuclear waste disposal solutions, and Bechtel National, Inc., part of the largest engineering and construction company in the U.S., have announced a cooperative agreement on sales, product development, and the deployment of Deep Isolation’s patented technology.

The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) strengthens the relationship between Deep Isolation and Bechtel that has been built over the past year. 

Elizabeth Muller, CEO of Deep Isolation, notes, “Bechtel was the first major industry player that understood the significance of what Deep Isolation is doing. They appreciate the importance of innovation and urgency in solving the nuclear waste problem. We are excited that this MOA will solidify our existing relationship and lead to new opportunities for us to explore together.”

Under this agreement, Bechtel will provide support such as project management, financial/business and engineering capability for Deep Isolation’s sales in both domestic and international markets, including those with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Deep Isolation will provide options to support Bechtel’s cleanup work at federal government sites around the country. Deep Isolation could also be a key player in Bechtel’s decommissioning contracts at commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S. and worldwide.  

James Taylor, general manager of Bechtel’s Environmental business line, said, “Deep geologic disposal is the scientific consensus for permanently removing and disposing used nuclear fuel and high-level waste from their current locations around the country. We have long-term expertise in design, engineering and licensing, as well as the boots-on-the-ground experience with the everyday challenges of cleaning up radioactive waste. Bechtel is proud to support such an innovative technology that offers an alternative solution for safe, retrievable disposal of used nuclear fuel and high-level waste.”

Globally, there are roughly 450,000 metric tons of nuclear waste that have accumulated, and there is currently no operating disposal solution for commercial used nuclear fuel or high-level waste. Implementing a state-of-the-art technical solution, which is the goal of the MOA, would address one component of the challenge. 

Another major challenge for nuclear waste disposal is locating an acceptable site. Deep Isolation is prepared and looks forward to engaging with local communities and stakeholders to create an opportunity that is beneficial to all. Deep Isolation believes that genuine partnerships for collaborative problem solving are the means to success. “Because we are talking to stakeholders early, we are able to incorporate their feedback and suggestions into our plans. We believe in early engagement, genuine listening and honest transparency. We are committed to these values even as our company grows and we develop partnerships for delivery,” states Muller.

The MOA with Bechtel will help build capability for Deep Isolation to deliver its solution in countries that are interested in a deep horizontal drillhole disposal option. “We have the horsepower of Bechtel behind us. Deep Isolation is now well positioned to deploy its solution globally,” says Rod Baltzer, COO of Deep Isolation.

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About Deep Isolation

Berkeley-based Deep Isolation is a leading innovator in nuclear waste disposal. Founded through a passion for environmental stewardship, scientific ingenuity and entrepreneurship, Deep Isolation has developed a patented solution using directional drilling in order to safely secure nuclear waste deep underground.

About Bechtel

Headquartered in Virginia, Bechtel is a global engineering, construction and project management company that has worked with industry and governments worldwide to deliver more than 25,000 projects in 160 countries. It serves the infrastructure; nuclear, security & environmental; oil, gas & chemicals; and mining & metals markets. Bechtel led the scientific characterization, engineering and licensing efforts for the U.S. Department of Energy’s national repository program at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as well as completed the engineering and design of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico for the disposal of defense-generated transuranic waste.

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Deep Isolation, Inc.
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Blog by Rod Baltzer, COO of Deep Isolation

Viewpoint: Yucca Mountain

North Portal of Yucca Mountain
The north portal of Yucca Mountain. Photo by Steve Marcus, Las Vegas Sun 3/27/98

I’ve spoken to a lot of people over the past year about Deep Isolation and our deep, geologic horizontal drilling solution for nuclear waste.  One frequent question I hear is “what is Deep Isolation’s position on Yucca Mountain as a repository for the US”? While there has been an extensive amount of time and effort invested in the proposed Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste, our company does not take a position and remains neutral on this decades-long effort. I think I should explain why in a little more detail.

The first thing I want to note is that there is no real need for Deep Isolation to have a position on the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, as its legislated capacity of 63,000 metric tons falls short of the nearly 80,000 metric tons of waste currently in the US. There is a daunting amount of waste to safely dispose of that already exceeds Yucca’s capacity. We think a Deep Isolation solution is a good option as a second repository.

It is also important to share something about Deep Isolation’s employees and consultants – they are a group of diverse, eclectic, and very thoughtful experts.  We have staff that has been involved in nuclear waste for their entire careers and those that didn’t know anything about nuclear waste until they joined the company.  It makes for some really interesting team meetings; but, it also gives each of us better insight into the values and concerns each of us bring to the company about nuclear waste – whether that is a concern with the status quo or a concern with a particular nuclear waste.

I personally have been involved in nuclear waste for over 20 years. I have my own views on Yucca Mountain as does everyone in the company. But we all equally recognize that there is enough nuclear waste to go around and that whatever solutions are chosen, the US needs to get its disposal efforts moving.

At Deep Isolation we have corporate values that encourage us to be inclusive and consider each other’s positions.  Our private owners and advisory board members have diverse views as well – but they all want a solution for nuclear waste.  We believe the Deep Isolation solution provides an additional disposition pathway for commercial spent nuclear fuel and DOE nuclear waste inventories and should be considered a second repository disposal option.

Deep Isolation’s charge is to make forward progress on nuclear waste disposal but to do so in a dialogue with all stakeholders.  We do that every day and hope you’ll join our discussions.

To follow our progress, please subscribe to our newsletter on our website.  You’ll then be informed of webinars and other opportunities to interact with us.

Company will Present Multiple Papers at the 2019 International High-Level Radioactive Waste Management in Knoxville, Tennessee 

Berkeley, CA – Deep Isolation, a leading innovator in nuclear waste disposal solutions, announces the publication of its paper, “Thermal evolution near heat-generating nuclear waste canisters disposed in horizontal drillholes” in Energies, a peer-reviewed open-access journal of energy-related scientific research, technology development, engineering, and policy and management.  The paper was published February 13, 2019, and was written by hydrogeologist Stefan Finsterle, alongside Deep Isolation colleagues Richard A. Muller, Rod A. Baltzer, Joe Payer, and James W. Rector.

A second paper, “Corrosion performance of engineered barrier system in deep horizontal drillholes,” written by Joe Payer, corrosion and reliability engineer at Deep Isolation and chief scientist emeritus for the National Corrosion Center at the University of Akron, has also been accepted for peer review in Energies on April 11, 2019. Coauthors include Finsterle, Muller, and John Apps.

Deep Isolation will give presentations on thermal issues and waste disposal canister design that draw from these papers at the International High-Level Radioactive Waste Management Conference (IHLRWM 2019) taking place April 14-18, 2019 in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Two other papers covering drillhole technology and stakeholder engagement will also be discussed at the conference.

 “Deep Isolation is bringing something new to the table. Our technology for horizontal drillhole disposal is sound and our community-based siting approach is groundbreaking,” says Rod Baltzer, Deep Isolation’s COO. “Our disposal solution can be customized for a country’s needs and specific waste inventory.” 

Richard Muller, the Chief Technology Officer, said, “We believe that deep disposal of high-level nuclear waste in horizontal drillholes addresses a multitude of issues that challenged previous approaches while offering a less expensive solution. Even though we are a private company, we believe that transparency and full engagement with the scientific community is essential to assure the safety of the public, and publication of these papers is a key step in that process.”

IHLWRM 2019 is an international forum attended by hundreds of the world’s most reputable scientists, all working on issues surrounding long-term storage and disposal. It attracts an international audience from over 70 countries. This year’s theme centers around consent-based processes with an emphasis on information sharing across multiple generations.

The following four papers will highlight major aspects of Deep Isolation’s solution to the global nuclear waste disposal challenge:

  • Nuclear Waste Facility Siting: Learning from Success and Failure; Monday, April 15, 2:20 p.m. 
  • Corrosion Resistant Alloy Canisters for Nuclear Waste Disposal in Horizontal Drillholes; Tuesday, April 16, 10:15 a.m. 
  • Numerical Evaluation of Thermal Effects from Nuclear Waste Disposed in Horizontal Drillholes; Wednesday, April 17, 9:25 a.m. 
  • Deep Isolation: Innovative Technology for the Storage and Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and Other High-Level Waste; Thursday, April 18, 9:50 a.m. 

High-level waste such as spent nuclear fuel is currently stranded at points of generation in the U.S. and is waiting for permanent disposal. In the U.S., billions of taxpayer dollars have already been spent without yet obtaining a solution for nuclear waste. In addition, over 30 countries play host to a growing inventory of radioactive waste that is also waiting for disposal. Deep Isolation offers a global solution that provides a deep horizontal drillhole repository that could be near or at the point of waste generation, which would reduce the need for long-haul transportation.

### 

About Deep Isolation 
Berkeley-based Deep Isolation is a leading innovator in nuclear waste disposal solutions. Founded through a passion for environmental stewardship, scientific ingenuity, and American entrepreneurship, Deep Isolation’s world-class team of experts has developed a patented solution using directional drilling to safely secure waste deep underground. For more information, visit www.deepisolation.com or contact info@deepisolation.com. 

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Berkeley, CA 94704
www.deepisolation.com  

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Blog by Joe Payer, Corrosion and Reliability Engineer

The “Right Stuff” for Nuclear Waste Disposal Canisters

The metal canisters that will hold the spent fuel or other high-level nuclear waste are part of Deep Isolation’s engineered barrier system; the canisters directly protect the waste from mechani­cal impact, exposure to the chemical environment, and contact with fluids. One of the key decisions then, to ensure the canister’s usefulness as a barrier, is the choice of material used. Our material selection process began with an extensive analysis of the peer-reviewed literature, over the course of months, which of course included examining test results and recorded observations and measurements. I was the lead as a senior corrosion engineer, but the entire technical team helped vet the choice of best material. Our decision is to use highly corrosion-resistant nickel-chromium-molybdenum (Ni-Cr-Mo) alloys which are very stable in the deep underground environment. These alloys also have high strength and are readily fabricable by conventional methods. My paper, “Corrosion-Resistant Alloy Canisters for Nuclear Waste Disposal in Horizontal Drillholes,” summarizes the technical basis for our selection of these alloys and gives both the experimental analysis and real-world experience on performance in a wide range of highly corrosive applications.

Deep Isolation Canister Cross-Section
Cross-section of the canister containing a fuel assembly.

How can we be sure that Ni-Cr-Mo alloys are the best choice for the long time periods needed? The answer lies in the fact that these alloys are passive, that is, they are protected by a self-forming and self-healing film if damaged either chemically or mechanically. This passive film is an extremely thin layer of a chromium-rich oxide, essentially a ceramic material. The general corrosion rates of the passive Ni-Cr-Mo alloy are extremely low; it would take 17,500 years for this type of corrosion to penetrate to the thickness of a quarter, and the canister’s thickness is equivalent to 5-6 quarters.

Corrosion of canister equal to 1 quarter after 17,500 years.
Canister thickness equivalent to 5-6 quarters.

The Ni-Cr-Mo alloys also have high resistance to the localized corrosion processes of pitting, crevice corrosion and stress-corrosion cracking. Alloy 22, one of the Ni-Cr-Mo alloys, is among the most resistant to microbially-induced corrosion; its MIC resistance has been examined under a range of conditions with no evidence of surface damage. Galvanic corrosion also needs to be taken into account and will be addressed when considering the effects of the Ni-Cr-Mo alloy upon the other metals incorporated in the repository, the relative surface areas and the conductivity of filler materials, and the pore waters present in the rock.

A number of beneficial attributes of disposal in deep horizontal drillholes reduce the complexity of corrosion analysis and contribute to our conclusions regarding the high performance of Ni-Cr-Mo alloy canisters.

Read more in my technical paper that has been recently accepted by Energies, a peer-reviewed journal.

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