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.

Berkeley, CA — Deep Isolation, a leading innovator in nuclear waste storage and disposal solutions, will discuss horizontal borehole disposal as an option for spent fuel from advanced reactors at the upcoming Waste Management Symposia.

Rod Baltzer, Chief Operating Officer at Deep Isolation, will present a session titled “Disposal of Radioactive Wastes from Advanced Reactors in Horizontal Boreholes” as 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. Baltzer is responsible for Deep Isolation’s waste management operations, domestically and internationally, including interactions with communities, utilities and government entities. He has more than 20 years of experience in leadership positions in the nuclear waste industry.

Baltzer’s presentation will include insights derived from the recently published Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) study, “Feasibility of Borehole Co-Location with Advanced Reactors for Onsite Management of Spent Nuclear Fuel.” The report indicates that locating a deep borehole repository at the site of a hypothetical advanced reactor in the southeastern United States could be a potentially safe and cost-effective waste management technology option.

“The EPRI study is important as it evaluates new pathways for future nuclear waste disposal,” said Deep Isolation CEO Elizabeth Muller.

“We’ve seen a heightened interest in advanced reactors this past year, and I’m excited to discuss the back-end of the advanced nuclear lifecycle,” Baltzer said. “I’ll discuss why we think that a borehole repository can provide a safe and cost-effective disposal option for advanced reactors.”  Baltzer will hold office hours on March 8 from noon-2 p.m. PST, for those wishing to ask questions before his session, and on Thursday, March 11, from 7-10 a.m. PST, during the session.

Also on the agenda for Deep Isolation will be a session on stakeholder engagement.

Jim Hamilton, Director of Partnerships, will participate in the panel session, “Stakeholder Involvement in Consolidated ISF Storage, Disposal, and Transportation Initiatives,” 7-8:30 a.m. PST, on March 11. Hamilton has more than 25 years of experience in the public, private, and NGO sectors and has advised the U.S. Department of Energy on its spent fuel management program.

The panelists will discuss elements needed for success in engaging various stakeholders at all levels of a project’s lifecycle and will share best practices and lessons learned from current and previous projects.

“We have been talking with and listening to stakeholders across the waste management spectrum from the company’s inception, and it remains a key element of our success strategy,” Hamilton said. “While we do not have a disposal location yet, the work we are doing now will put us in a good position to continue to earn stakeholder support for our future implementation.”

Visit wmsym.org to register for the conference.

ABOUT DEEP ISOLATION

Deep Isolation is a leading innovator in nuclear waste storage and disposal. Founded upon values of environmental stewardship, scientific ingenuity, and social responsibility, Deep Isolation offers a solution that leverages directional drilling technology to safely isolate nuclear waste deep underground.  

Press Contacts:

Kari Hulac – Deep Isolation
media@deepisolation.com 

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.

Date: Wednesday, March 31, 2021 3:30 pm – 4:30 pm CET

This webinar presents an update to the results from the post-closure safety calculations for a generic deep horizontal borehole repository, specifically focusing on the sealing of the repository. The calculations are not derived from a specific geographic location or geological site. Generic calculations are a valuable and necessary step in developing a safety analysis approach that will eventually support the safety assessment of a deep horizontal borehole repository.

Deep Isolation begins the presentation with a brief company overview and a description of the purpose and importance of developing generic and site-specific models of the repository system and why we focused this set of calculations on the essential engineered safety components of backfilling and sealing of the borehole. Stefan Finsterle provides an overview of the report and the significance of the findings.

Featured Presenter:

Stefan Finsterle, hydrogeologist for Deep Isolation, will provide an overview of the analyses and the significance of the findings, followed by a Q&A session.

Date: Tuesday, March 30, 2021 10:30 AM – 11:30 AM PDT

This webinar presents an update to the results from the post-closure safety calculations for a generic deep horizontal borehole repository, specifically focusing on the sealing of the repository. The calculations are not derived from a specific geographic location or geological site. Generic calculations are a valuable and necessary step in developing a safety analysis approach that will eventually support the safety assessment of a deep horizontal borehole repository.

Deep Isolation begins the presentation with a brief company overview and a description of the purpose and importance of developing generic and site-specific models of the repository system and why we focused this set of calculations on the essential engineered safety components of backfilling and sealing of the borehole. Stefan Finsterle provides an overview of the report and the significance of the findings.

Webinar Presenters:

Stefan Finsterle, hydrogeologist for Deep Isolation, will provide an overview of the analyses and the significance of the findings, followed by a Q&A session.

LONDON, UK — A new Deep Isolation study commissioned by advanced reactor deployment company Fermi Energia discusses the potential suitability of areas in Estonia considered for siting a deep horizontal borehole repository for nuclear waste. This preliminary study found no fundamental geologic limitations to disposing of nuclear waste in deep horizontal boreholes and that a wide range of locations could be demonstrated to comply with IAEA Safety Regulations for geologic disposal.

The study is a qualitative geological assessment of Estonia’s crystalline basement rock that evaluates geological conditions and potential risk factors for Estonia’s 15 counties, screening their potential for hosting a deep borehole repository. Such a repository would isolate radioactive elements from the Earth’s surface for 1.3 million years. At that point, any elements that might reach the surface would be three orders of magnitude below levels deemed safe and allowable by international safety standards.

With Estonia aiming to reduce carbon emissions by 70 percent by 2030, advanced nuclear power generation from small modular reactors (SMRs) could contribute to Estonia’s carbon-neutral future. Yet the unresolved issue of how to permanently dispose of spent nuclear fuel is a major obstacle to deploying nuclear energy worldwide.

“If we are to be successful in our efforts to see Estonia become the first European Union country to deploy an SMR in the 2030s, it is important that we take responsibility now in planning for spent fuel disposal,” said Kalev Kallemets, CEO of Fermi Energia, an emerging company of nuclear and energy professionals founded to deploy SMRs in Estonia. “This Deep Isolation study indicates that a deep borehole disposal repository could meet all prerequisites and be safe and cost-effective as well as easily deployed and scalable.”

There are about 50 small modular reactor designs and concepts being developed globally, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Deep Isolation is partnering with the advanced nuclear sector to explore the important role that borehole disposal can play. For example, a recent study published by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) indicates that locating a deep borehole repository at the site of a hypothetical advanced reactor in the southeastern United States could be both safe and cost-effective. Fermi Energia is the first European company to contract with Deep Isolation on a preliminary geologic study to manage advanced reactor waste.

“As Estonia considers the role that advanced nuclear power generation can play in delivering a low-carbon future for the country, citizens and policymakers can feel confident there is a safe and affordable way to dispose of the resulting spent nuclear fuel,” says Chris Parker, Managing Director, Deep Isolation EMEA Limited. “We applaud Fermi Energia for doing the right thing by planning for disposal of the nuclear waste up front. This is a significant step forward in confirming that regions across Estonia, in particular along the northern coast near a potential SMR site, could potentially safely host a borehole repository.”

While countries such as Finland, Sweden and France are building mined repositories for nuclear waste, a deep horizontal borehole solution in Estonia would isolate the waste much deeper — at 1,500 meters vs. about 500 meters — for potentially lower costs, as highlighted in a recent EPRI feasibility study.  Deep boreholes are more quickly deployed, given that drilling can be done in weeks, while mining can take years and even decades.  As the geology near the potential Estonian SMR site appears suitable for disposal, the costs and risks of transporting waste long distances can be avoided. And they’re likely safer because there are no workers underground.

Deep Isolation’s solution would place the waste in corrosion-resistant canisters within deep boreholes drilled into rock formations that have been isolated from the biosphere for a million years or more.  The waste can be retrieved during a determined timeframe or permanently secured.

The study was conducted in collaboration with Engineering Bureau STEIGER LLC, Estonia’s foremost geologic and drilling company.

Deep Isolation will present the results of this study as part of Fermi Energia’s one-day SMR conference, New Generation Nuclear Energy in Estonia, on Feb. 9. Please register here.

ABOUT DEEP ISOLATION

Deep Isolation is a leading innovator in nuclear waste storage and disposal. Founded upon values of environmental stewardship, scientific ingenuity, and social responsibility, Deep Isolation offers a solution that leverages directional drilling technology to safely isolate nuclear waste deep underground.

ABOUT FERMI ENERGIA

Fermi Energia’s mission is to bring Estonian energy production into the 21st century by developing a modern small nuclear power plant that will ensure Estonia’s security of electricity supply in all weather, at a favorable price for electricity consumers, to meet the country’s climate goals.

Press Contacts:

Kari Hulac – Deep Isolation
media@deepisolation.com 

Mihkel Loide – Fermi Energia
+372 53 001 777
mihkel.loide@fermi.ee

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.

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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