Our Podcast Celebrates its First Year

Blog by Kari Hulac, June 8, 2021

Our Podcast Celebrates its First Year

When I was hired at Deep Isolation in early 2020, I was eager to apply my experience in news, social media and renewable energy marketing to a new-to-me topic: nuclear waste disposal.

However, of the skills listed on my resume, “podcast host” was not among them. So when two weeks into my job I found out that, “Oh yes, the company was very much in need of a host for a new series about nuclear waste,” I won’t lie: I gulped.

Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story logo
Deep Isolation’s podcast was established in the spring of 2020.

But when I discovered that it would be my role to represent people similar to myself — nuclear industry outsiders mostly unaware of this hidden-in-plain-sight worldwide problem — I knew it was something I was willing to try.

The goal was for Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story to embody one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program: the ability to listen, to recognize, and to understand different perspectives on nuclear waste and all of its dimensions; as a former reporter and editor, those objectives were in my comfort zone.

Afterall, what better way is there to collect as much wisdom as possible on a complicated topic? Now, a year later, we have released 12 episodes with plenty more to come. We’ve also incorporated additional hosts (Liz Muller and Sam Brinton) to provide valuable insights to these conversations.

I’m happy (and relieved!) to say the podcast has earned a five-star rating on Apple, with listeners saying they appreciate its “to the point and direct vibe” and the expertise of our interviewees, who include citizen activists, nuclear industry veterans, government leaders and scientists.

I’ve learned so much from each and every one of these guests and am grateful for their willingness to speak openly about the challenges they face in their respective efforts to tackle this controversial problem.

Don’t Miss Our New Podcast Highlights Reel

There are too many highlights to mention, but we’ve assembled some of them into a short montage that I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch or listen to.

The highlights reel includes Kara Colton, who points out that nuclear waste — often incorrectly portrayed as “green goo” ala “The Simpsons” — can be an object as seemingly innocuous as a glove or a broom.

Or there’s the episode with Judy Treichel and Steve Frishman, two “ordinary” citizens who’ve spent 30 years informing the public about the U.S. government’s plan to build a mined waste repository in Nevada. They discuss how their effort eventually led to Yucca Mt. being put on hold because, as they said the states residents believe, “Nevada is not a wasteland.”

New episodes are added monthly. Watch or listen at nuclearwastepodcast.com or subscribe via Apple, Spotify, Amazon or Google. The series is also a playlist on our YouTube channel.

Please note: Although Deep Isolation is the producer, any opinions expressed by either the interviewers or their subjects do not represent our official company position.

And as always, we’d love to hear from you! Who should interview next? What questions about nuclear waste would you like answered? Just send an email to podcast@deepisolation.com.

Blog by Liz Muller, June 1, 2021

Deep Isolation Marks Five-Year Anniversary

When Richard Muller and I founded Deep Isolation five years ago, we were inspired by a strong desire to do big things to help fight global warming.

It was evident to us that nuclear energy would have to be part of the low-carbon energy mix but that it had to be done responsibly and that it wouldn’t succeed without a waste solution.

When we realized the answer was hiding in plain sight — using advances in oil and gas drilling technology to engineer deep boreholes to safely and permanently isolate the waste — the company was born.

At the time our close friends and advisors from the nuclear industry told us we’d be better off spending our time on something that had a future. Nuclear waste disposal, they explained, could never get done. This week, in recognition of our June 13, 2016 founding anniversary, I’m pausing to reflect on how much has changed. Even though we have not yet disposed of any waste, most people in the industry now believe that we will. I am so proud of our team and what we have achieved. We have broken through barriers that many thought were impossible to overcome by assembling a strong team around a common vision.

Here are some of our most notable achievements, as well as some of my thoughts about what I hope the nuclear industry will look like by our 10th anniversary.

Deep Isolation’s Progress So Far

After we filed our first patent in 2015, Deep Isolation was officially incorporated the following year. We quietly began reaching out to environmental groups and other stakeholders across the U.S. solely to listen and learn, and we recruited our first team member (who crashed at our Berkeley, Calif., home-based headquarters!).

We knew from the beginning that a successful nuclear waste disposal initiative would never succeed without community involvement, and it remains a core company value.

We knew we were being disruptive. We knew that the concept of a private company tackling a problem that has plagued the nuclear industry and governments for decades would be difficult for many to embrace. But we were galvanized by our early successes, most notably holding a public demonstration where we emplaced and retrieved a prototype nuclear waste canister from a borehole.

The 2019 demo established us as serious players in the nuclear industry, and soon after we forged partnerships and working relationships with international industry leaders including Bechtel, Schlumberger, and NAC International Inc. With these partners, plus the recently announced MOU with Dominion Engineering, Inc., we have all the elements of the fuel cycle disposal ecosystem in place.

In 2020 we announced a London-based team to serve our international market, and we landed and completed our first several paid contracts to study disposal options in specific rock formations.

Now, we are humbled to be part of the global conversation on nuclear waste. Borehole disposal, which had been studied extensively for years in the vertical formation, is seeing a resurgence in interest from governments and organizations all over the world.  Not only do I hope this continues, but that it also encourages the industry to support more innovation in disposal technologies.

And in public conversations about nuclear energy, there’s finally a more hopeful answer to the decades-old waste question. As one supporter said in an online forum recently: “As for disposal, check out Deep Isolation, a cool company thinking outside the pool on where spent fuel can go.”

Liz and Rich Founders
Liz and Rich – Founders of Deep Isolation

Five-Year Vision for Nuclear Waste Disposal

The future has never been more exciting for Deep Isolation. Our team is growing quickly, and no, no one is on our couch at the moment. We’re entering our next stage of fundraising and eyeing service contracts with multiple countries worldwide.

Here’s my vision for five things I hope Deep Isolation and the industry as a whole achieves in the coming five years.

1. All countries with waste are moving forward toward deploying a permanent nuclear waste disposal solution that is based on equitability and social responsibility and can be implemented in years not generations.

2. Countries that opt to deploy new reactors will select, site, and fund a disposal option before the reactor is built.    

3. Governments and industry will encourage new waste disposal options and allow (even encourage!) private innovation, including in approaches to stakeholder engagement and working with repository host communities.  

4. Investors and the public will understand that nuclear waste disposal technologies are pivotal in the fight against climate change.

5. Deep Isolation will have proven the cost, safety, equity and other benefits of its solution, and the company culture will continue to emphasize supporting one another, and always prioritizing what is truly important.

Blog by Jessica Chow, May 11, 2021

Demystifying Nuclear Waste: Answers to Your Questions

Nuclear waste pellets
Spent nuclear fuel comes in the form of small pellets.

The issue of nuclear waste and the history of how it has been handled in the United States and worldwide is a complicated one. When it comes to discussing the issue of finding solutions, the conversations can be difficult due to conflicting opinions and viewpoints.

Growing up, nuclear waste was not a topic that ever crossed my mind or came up in conversation. In high school, when I was deciding on my college major, a desire to help solve the global climate crisis motivated me to study nuclear engineering. Yet at the time, I didn’t have a clear understanding of the complex nature of the nuclear fuel cycle and the industry at large. 

When I started taking nuclear engineering courses at the University of California, Berkeley, nuclear waste was seldom discussed in classes or seminars. Even when I eventually took a nuclear waste technical course, the societal challenges of nuclear waste storage and disposal were barely discussed, and if they were, the issues were often dismissed because it was considered that the public’s concerns were not “based in science.”

As a student, I spent time volunteering at different science education events throughout the San Francisco Bay Area where I learned how to talk to people about nuclear science. I was and still am incredibly passionate about nuclear and broader science education.

As someone approaching nuclear science from a technical perspective, and as someone who was surrounded by peers who viewed nuclear science similarly, it was difficult to honestly understand why the public was skeptical of nuclear power and fearful of nuclear waste.  However, I have learned from listening to all sides, that the public has incredibly valid concerns and questions about nuclear power and radioactive waste, and the industry has to do a better job of understanding these concerns.  

Jessica Chow as a nuclear engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley.
Jessica Chow as a nuclear engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley.

The storage and disposal of nuclear waste is more than just a technical problem, and solving the puzzle of how to permanently dispose of nuclear waste requires a greater understanding of its intersection with our own lives and well-being.

A desire to advance this understanding is behind Deep Isolation’s decision to launch a new resource, About Nuclear Waste. (It’s also why we launched an educational podcast last year called Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.)

As the curator for the About Nuclear Waste content, my goal is to outline the facts of nuclear science within the context of valid concerns in order to find common ground that helps our readers have more productive discussions about this important issue.

There are approximately 500,000 metric tons of nuclear waste worldwide, and none of it has been permanently disposed of yet. Every year more nuclear waste is generated from nuclear power plants and nuclear industries. As the world begins to seriously explore advanced nuclear options to develop more low-carbon energy sources, nuclear waste will continue to be a problem for future generations unless an equal effort is put into finding a solution for it.

I hope you find About Nuclear Waste helpful and informative. Sharing this knowledge of what nuclear waste is will hopefully be a good step toward a shared understanding that will help build public support for a permanent disposal solution.  If you don’t find your questions answered please let us know, and we will do our best to address them in future updates to this resource.

Guest Blog by Zeke Hausfather, Apr. 8, 2021

Our Changing Climate and the Accelerating Energy Transition

On March 12 climate scientist Dr. Zeke Hausfather, Director of Climate and Energy for The Breakthrough Institute and research scientist for Berkeley Earth, was among several experts to offer testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in a session titled “The Science Behind Impacts of the Climate Crisis.” This was the first time the committee addressed this topic, marking a significant milestone in the national conversation around global warming.

Zeke Hausfather Headshot
Zeke Hausfather, Berkeley Earth Research Scientist and Director of Climate at Energy, Breakthrough Institute

Since Berkeley Earth was established by Liz Muller and Richard Muller, co-founders of Deep Isolation, we are highlighting this important testimony in recognition of Earth Month 2021 and the 51st Earth Day. Deep Isolation recognizes that nuclear energy is an important means of addressing climate change, and without a nuclear waste solution, finding public support for nuclear may be challenging. The introduction to Hausfather’s testimony follows:

Good morning Chairwoman (Eddie Bernice) Johnson, Ranking Member (Frank) Lucas, and members of the Committee. I am grateful for the opportunity to join you today and the opportunity to share my perspective on the science behind the impacts of climate change. My name is Zeke Hausfather. I am the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank located in Oakland, California. I also serve as a research scientist with Berkeley Earth, and a contributor to Carbon Brief.

I am a climate scientist whose research focuses on observational temperature records, climate models, and mitigation technologies. I am also a contributing author to the IPCC 6th Assessment Report. My testimony today will draw upon my work and that of my colleagues to present a view of our changing climate and its impacts, the future warming pathways the world may take, the accelerating global energy transition away from carbon-intensive fuels, and the technologies needed to decarbonize the U.S. economy.

In many ways, 2020 was the year in which both climate change and the accelerating energy transition became impossible to ignore. On the climate front, we saw 2020 tie with 2016 as the warmest year since records began, with global temperatures around 1.3ºC (2.4ºF) above the temperatures of the late 1800s. Land areas – where we all live – were nearly 2ºC (3.6ºF) warmer. We saw devastating wildfires in California and Australia, extreme heat in Siberia, and the second-lowest level of Arctic sea ice ever observed, among other climate extremes.

This map shows how local temperatures in 2020 have increased relative to the average temperature in 1951-1980.

At the same time, the world has made substantial progress in moving away from the worst-case outcomes of climate change over the past decade. Rather than a 21st century dominated by coal that energy modelers foresaw, global coal use peaked in 2013 and is now in structural decline. We have succeeded in making clean energy cheap, with solar power and battery storage costs falling 10-fold since 2009. The world produced more electricity from clean energy – solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear – than from coal over the past two years. And according to major oil companies peak oil is upon us – not because we have run out of cheap oil to produce, but because demand is falling as consumers shift to electric vehicles.

Current policies adopted by countries put us on track for around 3ºC (or 5.4ºF) of warming by the end of the century, compared to the late 1800s. Including pledges and targets – such as those included in the Paris Agreement – brings this down to 2.5ºC (4.5ºF). We have seen a proliferation of longer-term decarbonization commitments in recent years, with countries representing around half of global emissions – including China – pledging to reach net-zero by 2050 or 2060. If these longer-term commitments are achieved, it would bring end-of-century warming down close to 2ºC (3.6ºF).

Some caution is warranted here; long-term pledges should be discounted until reflected in short-term policy commitments. And warming could well be notably higher – or lower – than these best estimates, given scientific uncertainties surrounding both the sensitivity of climate to our greenhouse gas emissions and likely changes in the ability of the land and oceans to absorb a portion of what we emit. CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere over time, and until emissions reach net-zero the world will continue to warm.

This is the brutal math of climate change, and it means that the full decarbonization of our economy is not a matter of if but when. Cost declines in clean energy go a long way toward making deep decarbonization more achievable at a lower cost than appeared possible a decade ago. Low-cost renewables can provide a sizable share of our energy needs in modern grid-integration models. In the near term, however, America’s cheap and abundant supplies of natural gas will play a key role in filling in the gaps as we build out more wind and solar and keep existing clean energy sources like nuclear online.

In the longer term, there is a growing recognition of the need for both complementary technologies – such as grid-scale storage and long-distance transmission – as well as clean firm generation like advanced nuclear, enhanced geothermal, and gas with carbon capture and storage to wean the system off natural gas. Studies have consistently shown that low-carbon power grids with a sizable portion of clean firm generation are a lower cost option than wind, solar, and hydro alone.

Debates around climate mitigation are often framed as a choice between the technologies we have today and future innovations. In reality, we need to do both; to deploy what is cost-effective today, and to invest in the range of solutions needed to tackle the hard-to-decarbonize parts of the economy. The recent omnibus bill takes an important step in this direction, authorizing billions of dollars for investments in clean energy, vital energy R&D, and grid modernization. It shows that there is real potential for bipartisan energy solutions that both reduce emissions and create jobs.

If we want to ensure that the rest of the world follows the U.S. lead in reducing CO2 emissions, there is no better step that we can take than making clean energy technologies cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. Making clean energy cheap can set the U.S. up to be a leader in developing and selling these technologies to the rest of the world while building new industries and creating jobs at home.

Find a link to the full testimony and a video of the hearing here.

In December 2020, the peer-reviewed journal Energies published a new paper by the Deep Isolation technical and geo-science team that explores what might happen if a deep borehole repository for nuclear waste had an improperly sealed access hole connecting the disposal section of the repository to the Earth’s surface.

In a recent blog post, Deep Isolation lead hydrogeologist Stefan Finsterle summarized the results of a paper titled “Sealing of a Deep Horizontal Borehole Repository for Nuclear Waste.” This new paper is a continuation of a more extensive safety study released a year ago that examines the overall safety of deep borehole repositories.

In a public webinar set for March 30 and 31, Stefan and other Deep Isolation team members will present the results of this updated safety report and field your questions and comments.

Get to know Stefan better through this Q&A.

Stefan Finsterle Headshot
Lead Hydrogeologist, Stefan Finsterle

Q. Hydrogeology is defined as a branch of geology that deals with the distribution and movement of groundwater in the soil and rocks, including aquifers of the Earth’s crust. Why is this so critical to understand for nuclear waste disposal?

A. Groundwater is the main vehicle by which radionuclides could be transported from a breached waste canister through the rocks, aquifers and soil to the land surface, where they may find their way to people, either directly through drinking water or more indirectly through other exposure pathways. It is therefore crucial to understand how water moves through rocks, how dissolved radionuclides would migrate within the groundwater, and what natural or repository-induced driving forces may exist in the deep subsurface. Geologic layers considered suitable to host a repository for nuclear waste are very tight, that is, groundwater flows extremely slowly through the small pores of the rocks, effectively isolating the waste for very long times. I hope this clarifies why understanding hydrogeology — the interaction of water and rock — is essential when trying to find a suitable site and for assessing the safety of a nuclear waste repository.  

Q. Tell us about your background as a hydrogeologist who studies deep geologic repositories for nuclear waste. What interests you most about this work?

A. As an environmental engineer, I want to understand the natural environment, protect it, or at least help minimize or mitigate the potentially negative impacts of our intrusions. Hydrogeology has always been fascinating to me because the deep subsurface is both vast and difficult to observe, requiring innovative methods to understand and characterize it, with the response of the groundwater to our testing being the most telling messenger. Nuclear waste disposal is obviously a multifaceted challenge; the fact that answering hydrogeological questions is key to finding a viable solution is certainly a great motivation for me. Moreover, I find the idea of borehole disposal intriguing because this concept indeed minimizes the interference of the repository with its host rock and the fluids that flow through it.

Q. This latest study looks at what the consequences would be for an improperly sealed borehole containing nuclear waste. Why was this important to study?

A. There are two main reasons why it is important to analyze the safety effects of an improperly sealed borehole. First, building a repository invariably perturbs the otherwise impermeable host rock. The access hole and the disturbed rock around it are often considered the weakest elements of the repository system, as they pose a risk for radionuclide leakage. Second, even if the borehole is carefully sealed and tested as part of the repository closure activities, it is difficult to demonstrate that the seals will remain tight for the long time periods over which the safety of the repository must be assessed. Rather than studying the effectiveness of different sealing methods, we decided to examine the impacts of a poorly sealed borehole (or a seal that has degraded over time) on safety, to better understand how much we will have to rely on the long-term integrity of the seal. It is important to note that the design of a Deep Isolation repository includes proper sealing of the boreholes.

Q. The results seem to imply that a tight seal is not really necessary. Yet, Deep Isolation plans to install an impermeable sealing barrier. Given the results of your study, why spend the time and resources to do so?

A. There will always be irreducible uncertainties in predicting the long-term behavior of both the engineered and natural barrier systems. It simply makes good sense to install plugs at strategic locations and to backfill the access hole, specifically since such safety measures are relatively inexpensive. For example, installing a sealing plug at the beginning of the horizontal disposal section or another point along the access hole within the host rock would be very effective in retarding axial radionuclide transport. Special attention should also be given to the uppermost section of the vertical access hole. A suitable backfill would reduce the near-surface hydrological disturbances that propagate along the borehole into the repository, specifically pressure drawdowns caused by climate change effects or groundwater pumping. It would also directly protect the aquifer and inhibit inadvertent or malicious human intrusions into the repository. Hydraulic feed or thief zones identified during drilling and borehole logging can be plugged, and the drilling-disturbed zone around the borehole can be grouted at certain intervals. Sealing of boreholes and abandoned wells is required by regulation in other areas of engineering, specifically oil and gas production, energy storage, and geologic carbon sequestration systems. Similar requirements are expected for a borehole repository for nuclear waste. Nevertheless, it is certainly reassuring to know that a deep borehole repository does not need to rely on the long-term integrity of its backfill materials and sealing methods.

Q. What do you see as next steps or a follow-on study to this one?

A. I’m looking forward to engaging in discussions that further probe our assumptions about potential axial driving forces, the dissipation of pressure and dispersion of radionuclides into the overburden, and the overall arguments about the inherent, passive safety afforded by the geometry of the borehole repository. The topic of sealing will definitely need to be revisited for each potential repository site, as the site-specific geology and design adjustments will influence the effectiveness of the seals as well as alter seal degradation processes. In summary, extending the current, generic study to a site-specific performance analysis will be the next step in further examining the sealing of a deep borehole repository.  

Two sessions of the webinar “Safety in Depth Part 2: Sealing of a Deep Horizontal Borehole Repository for Nuclear Waste” will be offered. Click here to register for the 10:30 a.m. PST March 30 session. Click here to register for the 3:30 p.m. March 31 CET session. Both sessions will feature a live question-and-answer period following the presentation.

Q&A Blog, Mar. 3, 2021

Getting Prepped for #WMSym 2021

Next week, two Deep Isolation company leaders, Chief Operating Officer Rod Baltzer and Director of Partnerships Jim Hamilton, will be presenting at Waste Management Symposia 2021, an annual conference that provides an opportunity for education and information exchange among those in the radwaste industry.

For this year’s event, featuring the theme “Reducing Risk Through Sound Technical Solutions,” Baltzer will highlight the results of a recently published EPRI report in his session, “Disposal of Radioactive Wastes from Advanced Reactors in Horizontal Boreholes.” The session is part of the High-Level Radioactive Waste, Spent Nuclear Fuel/Used Nuclear Fuel track, 7 a.m. to 10:10 a.m. PST on March 11. Hamilton will participate in the panel session, “Stakeholder Involvement in Consolidated ISF Storage, Disposal, and Transportation Initiatives,” 7-8:30 a.m. PST, also on March 11.

To help conference attendees get to know Baltzer and Hamilton, we sat down with them for a short Q&A.

Rod Baltzer Headshot
Chief Operating Officer, Rod Baltzer
Jim Hamilton Headshot
Director of Partnerships, Jim Hamilton

Q: Let’s get to know you both a bit. Why did you choose careers in something as challenging as nuclear waste disposal? What keeps you inspired each day?

Rod:  I think nuclear waste chose me.  I got a degree in accounting and agricultural economics.  After working in public accounting, I worked for a company that owned a nuclear waste company.  It was fascinating, and I really enjoyed working on the issue and have been in the nuclear waste industry ever since. 

Jim:  In the literature, nuclear waste is described as a “wicked problem.”  Any attempt at a fix requires balancing technology, policy and pragmatism combined with a deep appreciation of the societal issues surrounding nuclear energy.  It also requires forming collaborations and partnerships across sectors, cultures and disciplines.  Sure it’s not for the faint of heart, but I find it fascinating and feel lucky to be working toward a solution.

Q: If I’m a first-time WM Symposia attendee, what should I expect? What are some highlights, learnings etc. from past conferences?

Rod: I can’t imagine attending WMS for the first time in a virtual format.  I’ve attended the conference for the last 15 years, and I’m not sure what to expect this year.  Typically, you have about 3,000 people from around the world in a large exhibit space with hundreds of exhibitors. There’s really good content and intriguing new ideas and discussions. The best part is randomly meeting new people and then seeing them every year after that. 

Jim: I agree with Rod. The real learning comes from the interactions in the hallways, meeting new people, then building on those relationships in the future.

Q. When you think of this year’s theme, “Reducing Risk Through Sound Technical Solutions,” what’s top of mind for you in terms of your respective roles at Deep Isolation?

Rod: Deep Isolation believes that fitting the right disposal solution to the right situation can allow disposal to be accomplished sooner and more cost-effectively.  Borehole disposal — whether vertical or horizontal — may provide a safe, cost-effective solution to reduce risk and make progress on waste disposal. 

Jim: I’m a bit of a contrarian. Yes, we need sound technological solutions. Nobody will argue with that.  But technology by itself is only half the issue. In parallel, we need to earn public trust and support.

Q. Let’s give conference attendees a couple of reasons to attend your sessions. Can you share a few high-level goals for what you’d like attendees to learn in your presentations?

Rod: Well, first off, we’re having a swag giveaway for my office hours session. (Sorry, Jim!) So if you show up, you can enter a drawing for your choice of a cool portable speaker or a nifty set of earbuds.

Other than that, I think a discussion about costs for disposal for advanced reactors is very timely. 

Jim: Ok, Rod. Well, I can’t top you on the swag, but I’ll do my best here. I can promise my session will give an update on how we view stakeholder engagement and its importance in supporting our overall mission.

Q. Aside from your sessions, is there a session that you’re particularly looking forward to attending? Tell us why.

Rod: I like the Plenary sessions and am looking forward to a session on the cleanup of Fukushima in Japan.

Jim: I’m a fan of the student poster sessions.  It’s always invigorating to see new ideas and innovations coming from national and international research institutions.

The virtual Waste Management Symposia is set for March 8-12. Register or learn more about sessions and speakers. See Swag Bag Giveaway contest rules here.

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 the 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.

Sealing Paper Image
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.

Related Posts

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.

Successful canister retrieval demonstration

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!

Related Posts

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. 

Concept Graphic of Advanced Nuclear Power Plant
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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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.

Ongoing nuclear waste disposal in a deep horizontal borehole concept

“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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