Through is the Only Way Through Nuclear Waste Disposal Impasse

New safety calculations report offers a science-based starting point for a conversation about nuclear waste disposal.

Robert Frost, 1954
Robert Frost, 1954
Ruohomaa/Black Star

Through and Through

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.

He says the best way out is always through.

And I agree to that, or in so far

As that I can see no way out but through —

Leastways for me—and then they’ll be convinced. (ll. 55-59)

“A Servant of Servants” 1915, Robert Frost

Though fortunately not the object of the dynamic described by Frost, wherein a wife describes what she wants (“rest”) and her husband responds, I empathize as I adapt the prose to the challenge of finding a way through the nuclear waste impasse. Yet the job needs to be done and its necessity hovers over every day. 

Though I don’t know the exact route through, I do know that neither blunt force nor shortcuts will get us there. If we are going to permanently dispose of nuclear waste we need to take stock of all the past mistakes that have been made, acknowledge the hurdles that remain in the way and plot a course for moving forward. I would argue that the most forbidding obstacles are social and political, which time and again render the possible impossible. They needn’t be though if we give priority to seeking resolutions.

The  Deep Isolation team has developed a novel method to dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste in underground horizontal boreholes. At the core of our approach is devoting time to meeting with members of the public and other stakeholders to listen to their ideas and concerns. I am glad we’ve made this a priority because I know it’s crucial to the company’s success. A significant scientific step that could advance our cause is outlined in a new Deep Isolation report: “Spent Nuclear Fuel Disposal in a Deep Horizontal Drillhole Repository Sited in Shale: Numerical Simulations in Support of a Generic Post-Closure Safety Analysis.” This technical report was based on multiple computer simulations analyzing the safety of a post-closure generic deep horizontal drillhole repository. The results suggest that the Deep Isolation concept can be proven to be safe and fully protective of humans. The promising conclusions weren’t derived from any specific geology, but it is a credible prerequisite for future analyses, especially ones done for specific geological sites.

Nuclear Waste Disposal Safety Report

Here is a breakdown of the report:

Main objectives:

  • Create a preliminary list of required safety aspects for a regulatory license for deep horizontal drillhole repositories;
  • Establish a template for site-specific safety analyses;
  • Develop a technical basis for discussions with all stakeholders regarding the performance and safety of deep horizontal drillhole repositories; and
  • Determine what elements of future site-specific safety analyses cannot be supported by a generic analysis. 

The report does not:

  • Make claims to the safety of nuclear waste disposal in any geology besides shale;
  • Prove that any site-specific geology with shale formations is a suitable site for a deep horizontal drillhole repository;
  • Demonstrate that any other waste besides spent nuclear fuel is suitable for a deep horizontal drillhole in shale formations.

This report, authored by Deep Isolation Hydrogeologist Stefan Finsterle, whom I hold in the highest regard for his scientific integrity, is intended to be built upon and reshaped. As such, we are conducting an independent review open to anyone. The report is available for download and one can submit input through our website. We’re also hosting two sessions of a free technical webinar to discuss the report. The 6 p.m. April 22 session is geared toward our Asia-Pacific audience. The U.S. session will be 10:30 a.m. on May 12, 2020. Please do register.

As the poem excerpt presages, progress depends upon dismissing short-cuts and demands perseverance. We understand that many who’ve been in the struggle to resolve this problem for decades may, like the wife described, feel tired and a bit cranky, but we know there is light on the other side, and the best way out is through.

Blog by Jessica Chow, Deep Isolation Intern, February 7, 2020

Nuclear Waste: A Social Responsibility

Big problems demand big solutions.

In the past decade, youth all over the world are speaking up about issues that affect them now and in the future. Topics such as food scarcity, energy poverty, climate change, and global prosperity have been brought back to the limelight. As a Gen Z student currently in graduate school at UC Berkeley, I have always been extremely passionate about the concept of social responsibility.

In my fight to speak up for my generation, I’m interested in meeting humanity’s responsibility to dispose of nuclear waste. Previous generations have been working towards a nuclear waste solution their entire lives and I want my generation to be the first to actually complete the fuel cycle. 

The longer we wait to address nuclear waste, the more problematic it becomes for future generations. Big problems demand big solutions. Big problems demand big solutions now. It is important to handle nuclear waste extremely safely, much like we would handle any potentially harmful material. All participants in the use of nuclear technology for defense, energy, and medicine share in this responsibility to dispose of waste. 

Since the advent of the nuclear energy industry and the expansion of nuclear power across the world, nuclear waste has been accumulating internationally. Historically, it was decided to think about nuclear waste solutions at a later date. Well, the later date is now, yet the majority of the world has no solution. In 2018, the IAEA reported on the world’s nuclear waste inventory in storage: 

Very Low Level Waste2,356,000 m3
Low Level Waste3,479,000 m3
Intermediate Level Waste460,000 m3
High Level Waste22,000 m3

Currently, not a single metric ton of high-level waste has been disposed of. It is an international consensus that high-level waste be disposed of in underground repositories – but not a single repository is operating. Although Finland is poised to be the first country to do so with its Onkalo repository, the world needs more than just a handful of countries doing so. 

It’s common for nuclear advocates to comment that all of the US’s commercial nuclear waste could fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards. While true, that waste is still not disposed of in any permanent fashion. Regardless of where you stand on nuclear power, nuclear waste needs to be disposed of. 

It’s time to bring everyone to the table and have a discussion about how we want to move forward for our generation and those after us. It’s time to stop stonewalling those we don’t agree with and work together. It’s time to listen to everyone’s concerns and work with each other. 

I am tired of waiting for a solution that isn’t implemented. With 2020 here, society demands clear solutions to our problems and the foresight to solve future ones. 

So why haven’t we solved the world’s nuclear waste problem?

Blog by Aristidis (Aries) Loumis, October 9, 2019

Deep Isolation Visits Diablo Canyon

Diablo Canyon Power Plant Ocean POV
By “Mike” Michael L. Baird, CC BY 2.0,

The reason for the visit was for some of our employees to see a nuclear reactor for the first time. What better place to do it than in our own backyard of San Luis Obispo, California? Home of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant, and home to some controversy on its waste products, and what to do with them.

The tour, organized by the Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Committee (ISC), started out on a foggy morning at the PG&E Energy Education Center. The parking lot was full of colorfully dressed volunteers setting up for the AIDS life-cycle. This was one of their rest stops on the bikers’ long trek across California. The PG&E center had displays that showed different sections on electricity generation, nuclear power plants, nuclear fuel assemblies, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicle charging stations. 

We sat in on a presentation made and hosted by PG&E which talked about nuclear energy, the nuclear fuel cycle, and operations local to Diablo. The PG&E presentation was followed by an introduction of the ISC, their members, and the work that they do (impressive work, but more on that later). 

After the presentations, we were led by the ISC and bussed to the power plant itself, a short drive away. We took a tour of the outside of the facilities, and even witnessed a safety drill done in their reactor simulator. Behind a one way mirror, we watched as reactor operators were being tested on determining failure modes of the reactor from an array of buttons and controls with a myriad of lights and monitors lit up across the room.  

The apex of the visit for me was a short 30-second drive near the concrete dry-cask pad. The spent fuel was stored at a high-elevation above sea-level in approximately 50 Holtec canisters. This whole tour was a really great opportunity for our employees to learn, to see some real nuclear waste, to hear some of the concerns of citizens, and to see the infrastructure that goes behind a nuclear facility.

Following the exciting driveby was a short tour of their massive water intake system. Some people were concerned about the effects of the intake and outtake on sea life. The tour guides assured us that the intake posed no threat to larger fish and turtles with their barrier systems. The water coming from the outflow was warmer, and although it has made room for thermophilic algae to thrive, it has also pushed out the algae that was originally there. 

One of the most interesting parts of the whole trip was to see how the community came together and created the Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Committee. The ISC was created in 1988 after a settlement agreement was established between the Division of Ratepayer Advocates of the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the Attorney General for the State of California, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). The committee consists of three nuclear professionals who are volunteers and who do not have any affiliation with the local utility and are responsible for auditing safety. The committee positions are held by Dr. Robert Budnitz of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Dr. Peter Lam who is an Administrative Judge Emeritus of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Dr. Per Peterson, Professor of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Coincidentally, Bob and Per are also advisors to Deep Isolation. The ISC has the right to receive operating reports and records from Diablo Canyon so that locals can be a part of the process of transparency and safety. Not that the nuclear power industry doesn’t already have a good safety record, but having more transparency with your local community can never hurt!

At the end of our tour, we were bussed back to the energy education center, and once again greeted by all of the colorful outfits adorned by the volunteers of the Aids Life Cycle. These people came together to fight for a common cause of public health and just plain helping people. This whole experience once again taught me that we can do amazing things when a whole community decides to work together.

Blog by Mary Woollen, September 10, 2019

Acknowledging a Need for Change at the RadWaste Summit

Las Vegas Sign

It is said of Las Vegas that “whatever happens here, stays here”.  Vegas—a city of lights, sin, dreams, casinos, pop-up marriages, gambling, wine slushies and— a conference on nuclear waste.  I will keep the Vegas promise and remain quiet about all—except the last one.  Get this…

For three days I participated in the RadWaste Summit on behalf of Deep Isolation. It was a large gathering of people from the US and abroad, assembled to participate in discussions about the challenges and possible solutions to the management and disposition of nuclear waste. There were panel discussions on budget, policy and governance, high-level waste transportation, NRC and National Lab topics and my favorite–the critical importance of stakeholder engagement (what I call The Queen of Hearts). There was no pyrotechnics in these stage shows, but the topics were hot and steamy and the audience riveted.

And oh, the mingling between sessions was everything you could hope for in bucolic setting of palm trees, faux Grecian pillars, gold carpets, bad art and the distant ping of slot machines.   As I strode through the small groups of male and female session participants holding their Cokes and talking in hushed tones, I caught a few errant words such as… “Cask impact limiters”,”10-CFR 72”,” consent”, “engineered barriers”, “Atlas”, “decommission” (heard that one many times!) “kiss”, or maybe it was “CIS?”, and over and over mention of a certain mountain.  It was serious talk that is seldom heard in open public settings. 

After three days spent traipsing between a room of booths with vendors and swag (my favorite being a little spongy green man from Area-51), the large ballroom and hallway conversations, I came away with this–it is time for a change.  The decades of diligently clinging to the dictates of outdated policy and technology are over and we need to make way for innovation and boldness.  This sentiment was expressed by high-level governmental appointees, community groups, legislators, tribal nations, and CEO’s.  It was a common thread woven and bound tightly throughout –like the cursed Mummy in the Luxor Sphinx.

Rita Baranwal, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at DOE, spoke about how she wanted to apply the brilliance of innovative technologies into the nuclear setting and get them on center stage.  She decried the fact that although the U.S. is a leader in developing advanced designs and technologies that could provide game-changing solutions to outmoded ones, we are lagging behind other countries who are deploying them.  She spoke of a vision for updating dated regulations to hasten the implementation of new technologies and for allowing more public-private partnerships as a new way of doing business and getting things done more safely and cost-effectively. 

Hmm. That reminded me of a company I work for. The need for change was also acknowledged in areas of stale policy, regulatory reform and another one of my favorites, strengthened environmental protection. That also reminded me of Deep Isolation’s commitment that the maximum radiation dose to the most exposed member of the public at all times after closure of the horizontal drillhole repository from all exposure pathways combined will not be greater than 10 millirems per year. Bravo!!

All this and more took place in three days of what were record-setting 108-degree temperatures outside.  The world climate temperature is changing, and with it, we need a change in our collective temperament. Without it, we may end up like the garish Sphinx I could see from my window.  So, quite the contrary of keeping what was said and done quietly while spending time near the Strip. It is time to shout from the rooftops or the top of the Eiffel Tower, that we need to combine the innovation of technology with human courage to create what we want and need*.

* I am not referring to the Slotzilla Zipline ( But if you go you have GOT to try it; you can hold your wine slushie while doing so.

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.

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.

Blog by Mary Woollen, Director of Community Engagement

Nuclear Waste. Would you like it here or there?

Green Eggs and Ham

I would not like it
Here or there.
I would not like it

Nuclear waste.  It has been with us for over six decades with nowhere to go.  The first nuclear power plants came online in the United States in the 1950s. The push at the time was to get the plants operational and address the production of nuclear waste as a problem to be solved thereafter. It is now 60 years later and the questions of when, where, how, and for some even why, continues.

Many believe that it is morally wrong to continue production of nuclear power as long as there is no certain path for its disposal.  Others are advocates of nuclear power who believe it can be safely stored while we work to solve the problem. And then there are those (like me) who believe the problem needs to be addressed and solved regardless of whether the nuclear plant switch is on or off.

Unless you have been “in the dark or on a train” you are aware of the fact that there is no present workable solution to dispose of our nation’s growing inventories of nuclear waste.  Around 90,000 metric tons and growing.  There have been policies and plans set in motion to do so, but they have all been stalled primarily for social and political reasons.

In the U.S. as well as in other countries faced with this problem, the scientific consensus is that the best disposal solution for the waste is in a deep underground repository.  Although this is the goal most are pursuing, there is not one high-level waste repository to date that is operational. Finland is the closest to doing so at the Onkalo facility, but even that is not assured.

I have been in some conversations this past year in which people are floating some alternative means of disposal. And why wouldn’t they be – it has been a half-century since the first method was chosen.  These ideas range from shooting it to the moon, burying it in the deep seabed, disposing it in the Antarctic Ice Sheet, isolating it on a desert island, pitching it into a volcano.  I kid you not. 

I would not, could not, in a volcano.
Not in an Ice Sheet. Not on a moon.
Not on an island, not in the deep sea.
I do not like it, Sam, you see.

As far-fetched as they may seem, these and other options were all considered for the management and disposal of spent fuel.  This review of alternatives began in 1957, when the first National Academies study on the subject was published, to 1982 when the Nuclear Waste Policy Act put the choice of disposal in a mined deep geologic repository into law.   

There is no basis to challenge the finding that a suitable geologic environment at depth provides the most sound and secure means of isolating the waste, but options old and new deserve to be re-examined.  Technology and innovation have solved lots of age-old problems and it would seem only reasonable that there is additional knowledge to consider.

The logic would be that if we can refresh and defend the most viable option(s) we could bring renewed legitimacy to the task of disposing of waste and a societal issue that has not received its due. We then would need to apply all we have learned about how to best engage and collaborate with each other to find a suitable host location(s) to meet a commitment that we have grossly mishandled.

You do not like it.
So you say.
Try it! Try it!
And you may!

If the hunger is there, it is possible to serve up Green Eggs and Ham in a way that is socially responsible, technically feasible, and economically reasonable. And it may go down better than one may think. 

The End.

Blog by Zann Aeck, Marketing & Communications

Nuclear waste disposal demo – keeping the dialogue open

Recently, Liz Muller and I hosted a webinar about a public equipment demonstration that Deep Isolation conducted in January.   Our intent was to both re-engage people and groups with whom we’ve already connected and at the same time reach out to those not familiar with us. In doing so our goal was to share an important milestone not just as a company, but one for nuclear waste disposal in general. The outcome of this demonstration showed how today’s drilling technology can successfully be applied to deep geologic disposal of nuclear waste.

Liz began the session with a brief overview of the Deep Isolation technology and concept for implementing it to dispose of nuclear waste, and in doing so encouraged tough questions and input from all. She also highlighted the fact that in the months preceding the demonstration we met with the local community leaders on a few different occasions to get their full support. Liz then outlined the events of the public demonstration, spending time to show pictures of the prototype canister sized to fit the test facility’s drill hole and how it latches to the drilling rig.  Along with photos of the test facility, the canister lowering, and empty wireline surfacing, the play-by-play also featured a short clip that shows what we can’t see underground – how the canister rounds the wide curve and is pushed in place into the horizontal section. One of the highlights of the session featured comments from Jeremy Renshaw of EPRI who attended the demonstration.

To keep the session interactive, I asked Liz about 40 questions from the participants.  Questions covered topics such as geology, site analysis, monitoring, canister and fuel assembly specifications, comparisons with other solutions – both waste disposal and interim storage, regulatory standards, licensing, cost models, local community impact as well as our views on liability and responsibility for packaging the waste for disposal.

It is critical to our organization that we keep the lines of dialogue open with all groups that have a stake in nuclear waste disposal especially as we continue to move forward and gain significant ground in bringing a viable solution to a challenging market.

Blog by Rod Baltzer, COO of Deep Isolation

Nuclear waste disposal demonstration – both unique and mundane

Rod Baltzer Headshot

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.

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