A paper on the impact of poor borehole sealing on repository performance written by Stefan Finsterle, Cal Cooper, Richard A. Muller, John Grimsich and John Apps, has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Energies. The paper is available online and for download.

A deep horizontal borehole repository offers strong isolation of nuclear waste. The safety afforded by waste isolation at depth relies largely on the natural barrier provided by the horizontal section of the borehole.  A potential for vulnerability may be with the vertical section of borehole that needs to be drilled to build and access the repository. It is important to measure and ensure that the vertical access hole does not provide a direct path through which radionuclides escape from the repository to the land surface. While the borehole will be backfilled and plugged after waste emplacement, it is difficult to assure that the engineered sealing barrier will remain effective over the very long time period for which the waste must be safely isolated.

To investigate the importance of borehole sealing on repository safety, we calculated the radiological exposure dose assuming that the backfill material is of poor quality or has lost its ability to inhibit water flow and radionuclide transport. Our computer simulations indicate that the release of radionuclides through the poorly sealed access hole is small, even if an earthquake destroyed the waste canisters and pushed water along the borehole and into faults. The estimated maximum dose from the release of radionuclides during these adverse events does not increase significantly compared to the nominal scenario and is two to three orders of magnitude lower than a 10 mrem dose standard.

Given that the long-term effectiveness of borehole sealing is difficult to assess or predict, it is reassuring that a deep horizontal borehole repository does not need to rely on the long-term integrity of its seals and backfill material.

Computer simulations of water flow and radionuclide transport in a deep horizontal borehole repository indicate that the waste remains sufficiently isolated even if a strong earthquake occurs and the access hole is poorly sealed.

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This month marks the two-year anniversary of a Deep Isolation milestone that’s worth pausing to reflect upon as we’re setting our 2021 goals.

As recently as 2018, nuclear industry professionals had dismissed the idea that a newcomer could help solve the nuclear waste problem, a serious environmental challenge that has yet to be addressed globally.  

But on Jan. 16, 2019, we took our first significant leap forward in overcoming such skepticism when we became the first private company to successfully demonstrate publicly to an invited cross-section of government officials, NGOs and investors the emplacement and retrieval of a prototype nuclear waste canister in a test drillhole about half a mile underground. 

The first step of the technology demonstration was the early dawn emplacement of the canister. In this phase, we showed it is possible to successfully lower a narrow long canister deep underground and push it horizontally into place.

 The biggest test was the final stage — retrieval. I still remember the look of pride on the face of our CEO Liz Muller later that night when the mechanical tractor emerged from the drillhole with the canister securely attached — something that at least some in the nuclear industry thought couldn’t be done.

“This proves definitively that canisters deep underground in horizontal drillholes are indeed retrievable,” Muller said as the canister was rose from the ground. “We just did it.” To date, our video of this demonstration has more than 43,000 views. 

Deep boreholes have long been used by oil and gas, and vertical boreholes had been considered for possible nuclear waste disposal, but we demonstrated a concept to use directional drilling to extend the vertical borehole horizontally to safely isolate the radioactive waste under multiple rock barriers far below the earth’s surface.

From Demonstrating Technology to Demonstrating Safety

While we were happy that day in Cameron, Texas, we knew that such a demonstration was only the beginning. We knew that to build a successful nuclear waste disposal company we would have to overcome many hurdles, including regulatory barriers, building community support and studying safety.

The fact that such a demonstration was even able to take place showed we were learning how to build public support networks. We made new friends in this town 75 miles northeast of Austin, and we are using that experience to continue engaging with people from around the world who are concerned about nuclear waste.

Because only a few dozen people could attend in person, we later hosted a webinar to answer questions and share with a wider audience exactly what took place and why.

On the safety front, a little more than a year later we released our first computer-modeled safety analysis: a set of post-closure radiological safety calculations for a generic horizontal drillhole repository sited in shale. 

We continued on a positive 2020 trajectory, winning our first several customer contracts and closing out a $20 million Series A raise that shows there’s a strong appetite among individual cleantech investors for technologies that advance solutions that address nuclear waste.

Looking Ahead to 2021

We plan in 2021 to secure additional contracts with governments and the advanced nuclear industry to study whether our deep borehole disposal solution meets their unique needs. Just last week we blogged about a new in-depth Electric Power Research Institute study of the feasibility of a deep borehole solution, and we expect to soon announce the results of a geology study conducted for an Estonian advanced reactor company.

We also recently published a paper in the independent journal Energies detailing the safety calculations for an unsealed deep horizontal borehole containing nuclear waste. 

To further help governments and advanced reactor organizations worldwide better understand how our solution can work for them, we can now test and demonstrate our solution using the testing facility of our technical advisor, Schlumberger, a world-leading oilfield service provider. 

If you want to know more, just let us know!

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At Deep Isolation we believe that nuclear power is important for achieving a carbon-neutral future and should be deployed in conjunction with a waste disposal program.

There are now about 70 advanced reactor projects being worked on in the U.S., a development that shows promise that this clean technology will be helpful in responding to the pressing need to address climate change. 

Just recently the U.S. Department of Energy announced that five teams will receive $30 million in initial funding for one of its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Programs, with an expectation that the DOE will invest about $600 million over seven years with industry partners matching at least 20 percent.  That’s on top of the $160M awarded through the same program to two teams in October with the expectation that DOE will spend over $3 billion on research for advanced reactors over the next seven years. 

In light of this progress, we are pleased to share the results of a comprehensive report published recently by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) that provides the most detailed analysis to date of how deep horizontal boreholes can offer a safe and secure disposal pathway for waste from advanced nuclear reactors.

The study, a collaboration among EPRI, the Nuclear Energy Institute and other interested organizations, assesses the feasibility of onsite horizontal deep borehole disposal for advanced nuclear energy systems. The 192-page report examines physical site characteristics, disposal operations, safety performance analysis, and regulatory and licensing considerations. The report also outlines an approach to engaging with the public in ways designed to build trust and support for the undertaking. 

At Deep Isolation we believe in solving the nuclear waste problem for future generations. This study provides valuable independent validation of our nuclear waste management solution and maps out a clear path for how we can collaborate with regulators and community members to establish an on-site disposal solution for advanced reactors.

One notable finding is that disposal of advanced reactor waste in deep horizontal boreholes would cost an estimated $478 million compared to $1.56 billion for disposal in a mined repository, representing a 69 percent cost savings. The base case assumed the disposal of 1,000 metric tons of waste from the 20-year operation of an advanced nuclear reactor.

“Innovative technologies, in parallel with the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors, have the potential to broaden our portfolio of used fuel solutions in the United States,” said Rodney McCullum, Senior Director of Fuel and Decommissioning at the Nuclear Energy Institute. “We are always encouraged when government agencies, the private sector or not-for-profit organizations drive new technologies to improve efficiencies, cost, and help secure the future for the next generation of nuclear reactors. NEI is excited about the prospect of deployment of innovative technologies as a complement to any current or future used fuel solutions in the U.S.”

Findings from this study also indicate new opportunities for countries with small nuclear waste inventories or for nations interested in building their first commercial nuclear power plants..  In either case, deep borehole disposal removes a significant cost barrier and provides a solution for a problem that has inhibited nuclear energy for decades. 

To improve customer receptivity and market penetration, we encourage all advanced reactor companies to plan for waste disposal in their product offerings. All too often, customer conversations around advanced reactors fail to consider waste management and we have seen this erode buyer confidence.  On the other hand, kudos to our customer Fermi Energia in Estonia for engaging in an early study of whether local geology is suitable for deep borehole disposal.

Visit EPRI to download the report or to read the executive summary.

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Advanced Nuclear Expands Clean Energy Options in a Power-Hungry World

Nuclear Waste Needs to be Part of Climate Change Discussion

Nuclear Waste Provides Exciting Opportunity for Cleantech Investors

The warmest 10 years on record have all occurred since 1998, with the top eight in the past decade. Climate change is one of society’s most pressing problems as it leads to more extreme weather, rising sea levels, arctic ice melt, and the displacement of coastal communities

While the news may seem dire, global warming can be mitigated by drastically decreasing carbon emissions. More people than ever are adopting low-carbon clean energy solutions such as wind and solar, but it’s important to deploy all available technologies, including nuclear energy and especially advanced nuclear reactors.

Current advanced reactor designs showcase more robust safety features, innovative cooling materials and systems, and decreased waste output and cost. For example, Terrapower, an advanced nuclear company founded by Bill Gates, is developing two reactor designs that do not need high-pressure environments to operate, unlike current light water reactors. Its molten chloride fast reactor (MCFR) operates at higher temperatures and therefore higher efficiencies, and makes use of a liquid salt fuel and coolant that allows the reactor to shut down without external power sources, thus preventing accidents. Terrapower’s traveling wave reactor is capable of using depleted uranium as a fuel source, lowering the cost of the overall fuel cycle by using spent fuel from existing reactors. 

Credit : Gensler/ThirdWay.org

Small Modular Reactors Offer More Flexibility

Additionally, there are many small modular reactor designs (SMR) that make nuclear far more scalable and flexible and an attractive choice for baseload energy sources. NuScale is one of the most prominent SMR companies and has recently had its small modular reactor design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Its SMR design is only a third of the size of existing pressurized water reactors and will be able to be manufactured off-site, reducing cost. 

SMRs are an option for remote communities that need low-carbon energy that is always available. One good example is Russia’s floating nuclear reactor, Akademik Lomonosov, deployed in 2019 to supply electricity to oil rigs in Russia’s Arctic Ocean. This 80MW mobile power plant generates enough power to provide energy to about 100,000 people.

The chief reasons why nuclear has not been utilized to its potential in the past is the enormous cost of building a light water reactor, and the unresolved issue of nuclear waste.  The SMR and MMR’s make possible the delivery of on-time and on-budget reactors, and now there is a modular disposal option. In addition to the passive safety designs of these innovative reactors, the two chief hurdles to ramped up nuclear power are eliminated. Advanced nuclear energy is low carbon and always on, capable of meeting demands for the smallest of towns to the biggest of cities. Paired with new advancements in renewable energy and energy storage, advanced nuclear technology has the potential to help combat climate change. 

By solving the issue of nuclear waste disposal with innovative and reliable solutions, the nuclear fuel cycle will be complete, and advanced nuclear technology can be more easily deployed and accepted. 

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Nuclear Waste Needs to be Part of Climate Change Discussion

Sixty-nine years ago something happened in a small desert town that changed the course of history. Dec. 20 will mark the anniversary of the day that the Experimental Breeder Reactor-I became the first power plant to produce usable electricity through atomic fission.  

The illumination of just four lightbulbs at the plant, a humble but significant start, eventually led to a reactor capable of powering the whole facility.

This monumental innovation was a pioneer in providing the world with a reliable source of carbon-neutral power long before anyone would realize how important that would become. But there was a critical flaw: There was no means for permanent waste disposal factored into the production of nuclear energy.

ebr-i lights building

It’s inspiring to see how innovation starts. From four lightbulbs in an Idaho desert, nuclear energy is a reliable power source that today provides 10 percent of the world’s power and is among the top sources of low-carbon energy. 

But seven decades later, the waste issue remains unresolved. There are 490,000 metric tons of radioactive spent fuel temporarily stored in pools and dry casks worldwide.

The reasons for this failure are myriad, but fundamentally the mined repository approach has been both expensive and unpopular. Because it is so expensive, there can typically be only one repository for a country, which means asking one community to carry the burden, leading to “not in my backyard” concerns. Specific failures have been because of an inability to achieve community consent, concerns over transportation, lack of trust in government, lack of political will, and poor communication.  When there has been progress it is typically measured in decades, or even generations. In the United States it has been very much one step forward, two steps back. And the result is that there is no working repository for high level nuclear waste or spent nuclear fuel anywhere in the world.

But the world has changed since the 1950s. Innovation has achieved technical miracles once thought impossible that leave our world vastly improved in so many ways. At Deep Isolation this spirit of innovation is at the heart of what we do and what we believe can address nuclear waste too. 

I recently blogged about how Deep Isolation’s successful $20 million Series A raise shows that socially responsible investors are willing to support a cleantech startup with a nuclear waste disposal solution. We’re thankful for this. The world needs cleantech investors who are willing to be inclusive of all technologies that work together to contribute to a carbon-neutral future. 

This means investing in advancements that complete the full fuel cycle rather than leaving waste sitting in indefinite storage. This also paves the way for a waste solution for the advanced nuclear power plants of the future.

Rod McCullum of the Nuclear Energy Institute was refreshingly candid when he said in a podcast interview: “To move the next generation of nuclear reactors forward, the industry needs to be able to tell investors and the government that we have a solution to the waste.”

This is where social responsibility comes into play. No matter whether you believe nuclear plays a role in slowing climate change or not, it’s a fact that the moment those first lightbulbs flickered to life in an Idaho desert a waste burden was conceived and left for future generations to bear.

Let’s be the generation to resolve this once and for all. The results will help make our world a better place.

As CEO of the nuclear waste disposal company Deep Isolation, my main focus is using innovation to solve the decades-old problem of what to do with nuclear waste. But finding solutions to the world’s toughest environmental problems is also reflected in my work with Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit that’s a widely respected source of independent unbiased climate change and air pollution data.

Ten years ago I co-founded Berkeley Earth to bring robust data and analysis to the question of global warming. Seeking facts over opinions, we organized a group of scientists to reanalyze the earth’s surface temperature record and published our initial findings in 2012. Yes, climate change is real, and we need to act. While recent severe fires have raised the profile of our work, this has always been a core belief of the organization.   

So how does my concern about climate change relate to nuclear waste disposal? The climate crisis requires immediate action to reduce carbon-based energy sources. Nuclear energy is part of the low-carbon, energy mix, but if we don’t solve the waste problem then we’re not being responsible.  It’s also true that without a waste solution it’s highly unlikely that the next generation of nuclear energy reactors will come to life.

In fact, many countries and states are decommissioning their nuclear reactors and banning the development of new nuclear energy until the waste problem is solved.

No country has yet disposed of high-level nuclear waste or spent nuclear fuel. Most governments put the waste into temporary storage facilities.  Some are planning to place it in mined repositories, but progress with those repositories is measured in decades and even generations.

Deep Isolation’s method puts waste canisters in deep geologic isolation using boreholes, and because there are no humans underground this is safer, more easily deployed, and more cost-effective than other methods.

Climate change has me concerned, but there are many reasons to remain hopeful. I’m seeing the world respond to environmental disasters such as the West Coast fires with a renewed sense of urgency, and cleantech investors are taking note. 

The fact that Deep Isolation just closed $20 million in Series A funding shows that socially responsible investors are willing to support a cleantech company with a mission to become an integral part of a low-carbon future. 

As an environmentalist, I believe that safely and permanently disposing of the world’s current nuclear waste inventory while providing a path forward for new nuclear is the responsible thing to do for future generations and the planet.

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Blog by Deep Isolation Staff, Aug. 10, 2020

Social Scientist Explains Community Consent

One reason why governments worldwide struggle with implementing a permanent nuclear waste disposal solution is that they don’t adequately engage affected communities, most of which don’t want it in their backyards.

In a recent episode of Deep Isolation’s podcast, Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story, social scientist Dr. Thomas Webler discusses the challenges of reaching community consensus when deciding where to dispose of nuclear waste.

Webler, Research Fellow at the Social and Environmental Research Institute (SERI) and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Keene State College, is well-versed on the topic: He and his colleagues made recommendations to the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and have advised the U.S. Department of Energy on nuclear waste disposal sites.

Dr. Thomas Webler
Dr. Thomas Webler, Research Fellow at the Social and Environmental Research Institute (SERI) and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Keene State College

In this episode, “Community Consent is Key to Resolving Disposal Impasse,” Webler says consent-based siting must respect the principle of self determination, meaning a community ought to have the power to accept or decline an offer to become a nuclear waste disposal site. 

“The most important thing that an institution could do to earn trust is to give the community the power and authority to close down, to turn off an operation, a facility, with no penalties or negative consequences,” Webler says.

He says it’s important that the entity seeking permission be open to listening, responding to concerns and discussing a variety of options rather than forcing a single solution or a particular disposal location.

He points to the 1996-1998 Seaborn panel in Canada as an example of a process that worked. The panel of experts visited different provinces and held public hearings to ensure that everyone had a chance to have their voices heard. Ultimately it was decided that a deep geologic repository was the best solution.

Consent is a concept that although challenging to define, is an admirable goal for any entity trying to find a site for a facility that could be perceived of as threatening. It is only through a process of engaging with a community and other stakeholders, as Webler describes, that informed consent can be achieved. When this process has been fair and transparent it can be a win for all involved. 

Watch Webler’s episode on video or listen to the podcast and let us know what you think!

While Deep Isolation is producing this series, any opinions expressed by either the interviewers or their subjects are not necessarily representative of our official position. 

Have a suggestion for someone we should interview? Email podcast@deepisolation.com. Learn more at deepisolation.com/nuclear-waste-podcast.

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Blog by Deep Isolation Staff, July 13, 2020

Temporary Nuclear Waste Storage Costs Keep Rising

In our fourth episode of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story we delve deeper into the downside of not having a permanent storage solution for nuclear waste.

Our guest is James Taylor, General Manager of the environmental division of Bechtel’s Nuclear, Security and Environmental global business unit. Taylor talks about the long-term costs of the interim storage of nuclear waste.

James Taylor of Bechtel
James Taylor of Bechtel

According to an analysis by Deep Isolation, based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Nuclear Association, more than half a million metric tons of high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide. No country has yet implemented a disposal solution for spent commercial fuel.

Taylor explains the financial impacts of not having a permanent disposal solution for nuclear waste, pointing out that utility ratepayers and taxpayers are footing a bill that will continually amount to hundreds of millions of dollars annually until a solution is implemented. This isn’t just an issue in the United States: This is a global challenge impacting countries worldwide.

With most of the waste sitting in storage pools or above-ground dry storage facilities, interim storage has become a big business, costing $6 million to $8 million per year to manage these facilities. 

Taylor brings a business-insider perspective to this issue. In his leadership role at Bechtel, Taylor has general management responsibility for the management and operation of high-hazard nuclear and chemical cleanup sites, facility decommissioning, field remediation, project management services and nuclear material management, treatment and disposition. This work includes managing projects for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Environmental Management (EM) and the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). 

You can listen to this interview and others on our website or subscribe to the podcast series on your favorite player. Watch the videos on our YouTube playlist.

While Deep Isolation is producing this series, any opinions expressed by either the interviewers or their subjects are not necessarily representative of our official position.

Have a suggestion for a future podcast? Email us at podcast@deepisolation.com. Learn more at deepisolation.com/nuclear-waste-podcast.

Blog by Deep Isolation Staff, June 22, 2020

Waste Disposal Issues Plague Nuclear Energy Industry

In the second episode of our new podcast and vlog series, Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story, we talk to nuclear energy industry veteran and Senior Director at NEI Rod McCullum about why it’s critical that commercial nuclear power companies find a permanent disposal option.

Nuclear power plants provide one-fifth of the United States’ electricity annually, according to Department of Energy statistics. Proponents herald it as a reliable zero-emissions source of energy while detractors say the risks of nuclear energy outweigh the benefits. Currently, futuristic advanced reactor technologies are being developed to compliment present day technologies.

Deep Isolation as a company does not take a position on the use of nuclear power.  Our focus is on providing a solution for the accumulated radioactive waste that is currently temporarily stored in spent fuel cooling pools and above-ground storage facilities worldwide.

A dry cask facility in Vermont.

“The good news with the nuclear industry is we contain all of our waste, all of our byproduct wastes,” says McCullum, Senior Director, Used Fuel and Decommissioning, for the Nuclear Energy Institute. “The bad news is we’ve still got them.”

In this episode, “Disposal Impasse Impacts Future of Next Generation Reactors,” McCullum explains why any failure to solve this problem could negatively affect the development of the next generation of nuclear energy reactors.

McCullum has 30 years of nuclear engineering, licensing, management and regulatory policy experience. Before joining NEI, he held positions with the U.S. Department of Energy and worked for several commercial nuclear power plants. 

You can listen to this interview and others on our website or subscribe to the series on your favorite player. Watch the videos on our YouTube playlist.

The opinions of the subjects interviewed do not represent Deep Isolation’s official position. Have a suggestion for a future topic? Email us at  podcast@deepisolation.com. Learn more at deepisolation.com/nuclear-waste-podcast.

Blog by Deep Isolation Staff, June 10, 2020

Expert Discusses Nuclear Waste Dangers and Disposal Options

We’re proud to present the debut episode of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story, an interview with Dr. Arjun Makhijani, an electrical and nuclear engineer with decades of experience in the nuclear waste field. 

We hope this series will help demystify some of the issues surrounding nuclear waste because we know it’s not something everyone understands or is comfortable discussing. Nevertheless, we have a social responsibility to foster a dialogue that touches upon all sides of the story.  

In this episode, “Nuclear Waste Disposal Difficulties Plague the Industry,” Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and Deep Isolation Advisor David Hoffman talks to Makhijani, President of Science Matters, LLC, to frame the problem and explore solutions.

Arjun Makhijani a Widely Respected Expert

We chose to lead off the series with Makhijani’s interview because of his extensive knowledge and because he speaks so candidly about why one should care about permanently disposing of nuclear waste.

Nuclear waste expert Arjun Makhijani.
Dr. Arjun Makhijani

In fact, Deep Isolation commissioned an in-depth report from Makhijani that culminated in a more than 130-page analysis of the history of U.S. nuclear waste disposal that explores even the most far-fetched options for disposing of spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

While Makhijani doesn’t believe there’s a completely “safe” solution for permanently containing nuclear waste, he agrees with the general scientific consensus that the best option is deep geologic disposal.

“Decades of analysis, review, research, and real-world events have shown that deep geologic disposal poses risks that are orders of magnitude smaller than any other approach for long-term spent-fuel management,” he wrote in his paper.

You can listen to this interview and others on our website or subscribe to the series on your favorite player. Watch the videos on our YouTube playlist.

The opinions of the subjects interviewed do not represent Deep Isolation’s position on the matters discussed. Have a suggestion for someone we should interview? Email us at podcast@deepisolation.com. Learn more at deepisolation.com/nuclear-waste-podcast.