On January 16, 2019, Deep Isolation demonstrated a portion of their nuclear waste disposal technology by using standard oil and gas equipment to emplace and then retrieve a mock disposal canister. In some ways, the demonstration was a very important milestone that shows you can dispose of nuclear waste in a deep horizontal drill hole. In another way, the technology already exists and is used daily in the oilfields. I thought it was both – unique and mundane.
The U.S. has struggled to make progress on the disposal of high-level nuclear waste, particularly spent nuclear fuel, for over 30 years. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy started a project to test the use of vertical boreholes to dispose of nuclear waste, but the project was abandoned as community concerns were not addressed.
Prior to the demonstration, we engaged with the local community, who knew we would not be disposing of radioactive materials. Without their support, we wouldn’t have been able to do the test. This community engagement aspect is one of the most important aspects in nuclear and it was important that we got it right. And we did!
The mundane was the technology. We used a mock disposal canister that was sized to hold cesium capsules. It was about 36 inches long and 4 inches wide, much smaller than a disposal canister for spent nuclear fuel. The main aspect we wanted to test was the ability to use off-the-shelf oil and gas equipment to emplace and then retrieve a canister – regardless of size. The oil and gas company was certain it would work as they had done similar operations many times. And it did!
Maybe that’s what we need – mundane technology that was proven in another industry to work and apply it to nuclear waste disposal. Maybe then we can make progress, but only if we do the important work of community engagement in the right way.
I’m part of Deep Isolation and we are here to do it right. We look forward to continuing the discussion and progress toward the permanent disposal of nuclear waste.