Frequently Asked Questions
Nuclear Waste Today
Why should I care about nuclear waste?
Is nuclear waste slimy green sludge?
What is the current plan for nuclear waste?
A permanent repository is partially constructed at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, where waste will be transported and then stored in casks placed in tunnels about 1000 feet deep. No waste is currently stored at this site. The cost of completing the Yucca repository is estimated by the US Office of Management & Budget (OMB) as $96B. Licensing of the repository was halted by President Obama, but there is pending legislation to re-start the process to license the facility. However, the State of Nevada opposes these plans, and has budgeted $3.5M per year to oppose the Yucca repository on legal grounds. Even after the Yucca repository is licensed for construction, it will need another license in order to operate and actually place waste in the repository.
Nuclear Waste Innovation Act
What does the act say, in simple words?
The Act directs the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to accept license applications from private companies, and allows the US Department of Energy to engage such companies for nuclear waste isolation and disposal.
Would disposal by a private company be safe?
How can a company maintain liability for thousands of years?
Liability would be with the U.S. government, not the private company. Just as the government will take title of the waste for the facility at Yucca Mountain, it will also take title of the waste for a privately licensed facility. The private facility would meet the same safety standards as government-licensed facilities. The main difference is that there could be additional innovations in the private-sector approach.
What companies might apply for licenses?
There are many private companies in the nuclear waste disposal business, and several of them might enter the field for spent nuclear fuel. They might include Bechtel, Fluor, Orano (formerly AREVA), Holtec, Waste Control Specialists, Battelle, EnergySolutions and many more.
Who benefits from the Nuclear Waste Innovation Act?
How could private companies do better than the US government?
Would the passage of the Nuclear Waste Innovation Act slow progress on the Yucca Mountain facility?
Community and Public Support
Wouldn’t communities reject disposal in their backyards?
About 1/3 of US citizens already live within 50 miles of a place where nuclear waste is stored above ground in cooling pools and dry casks. Deep Isolation would take that waste and put it a mile or so underground, protected by over a billion tons of rock. This would make the waste significantly safer than the status quo.
Deep Isolation will only work with communities and states that give their support for the permanent isolation of the nuclear waste. If a community is not interested in permanent disposal, they can still plan on shipping their waste to an interim site, or a different disposal facility, when one becomes available.
The decision process as to whether a community would prefer to transport waste to another location or dispose of it nearby is a complex one. Potential benefits of permanent isolation in their community include a timely solution to improve safety, minimizing transportation, increasing jobs, and new fees for the use of land. Only if the community decides the benefits make it worthwhile would a site be selected.
What kind of consent is required from the local community?
“Informed consent” is a minimum requirement for Deep Isolation. We prefer to talk about “enthusiastic consent”, meaning that we would seek to partner with communities that have a strong understanding of the safety and other benefits that could be realized from safely isolating the waste without needing to transport it from their community.
What will happen if the community is not interested?
What are the benefits to the community?
The first major benefit is safety. The nuclear waste that is currently stored in nearby above ground facilities would be safely isolated a mile deep in rock.
What would a sealed Deep Isolation repository look like?
With Deep Isolation, the surface would be left essentially pristine. There is not even a need for a concrete platform; boreholes often have the platform removed when the well is sealed. The specifics of the surface would be determined in partnership with the community.
Does the public think that the US government is the only appropriate organization to solve the waste problem?
Would there be jobs for the local communities?
Deep Isolation Technology
What is the Deep Isolation concept, in simple terms?
Rather than use large tunnels, Deep Isolation will place nuclear waste in narrow (8 to 14 inch in diameter) horizontal drillholes in rock that has been stable for tens of millions of years. No humans need to go underground. The small diameter drillholes are markedly different than the 18 to 25-foot diameter tunnels of the planned Yucca Mountain repository.
Deep Isolation drillholes will go down about a mile vertically and then gently turn horizontal. The waste would be stored in the deep horizontal section. This approach has several key benefits. First, horizontal drillholes, especially with an upward tilt and a “plumber’s trap” can prevent radioactive material from reaching the vertical portion of the borehole, and reduce dependency on man-made barriers. Second, placing the canisters in a long horizontal borehole increases the storage room without having to drill overly deep (at which point pressure can increase cost), or to have to worry about stacked canisters being crushed by their own weight.
The drilling industry has already perfected ways to place objects in deep boreholes, and retrieve them, all robotically.
Can you really put three miles of continuous steel liner (a “casing”) down the drillhole (1 mile of vertical access and 2 miles of horizontal storage)? How does it get around the curved section?
Do you pick sites that are suitable for gas and oil recovery?
Why didn’t someone think of this before?
Can all that waste fit in narrow drillholes?
What keeps the radioactivity from reaching the surface?
The Deep Isolation design relies on both engineered and geological barriers so there is built-in redundancy to the system.
The deep geology of the Deep Isolation design is a significant barrier. If there were to be any releases, they would have to get through a mile of rock, over a billion tons, including layers that have held volatiles (methane) for millions of years.
Additional engineered barriers include the ceramic pellets themselves, the metal rods that contain them, the bentonite surrounding the rods, sealed steel canisters that hold the rod assemblies, steel casing that lines the drillhole, and the cement that fills the space between the casing and the drillhole.
Why a mile deep?
How do you put the fuel down there?
Does the fuel have to be repackaged to fit in the canisters?
How can a vertical borehole bend to allow horizontal storage?
Has this drilling technology been tested?
Can the waste be retrieved?
What if a canister gets stuck in a hole?
If there are unexpected challenges with retrieving an object, then there are specialist companies that can “fish” for uncooperative objects such as broken pipe. They regard retrieval of a canister, something that is “cooperative” (has structures purposefully built in to make connection easier), as straightforward.
How soon can you dispose of existing waste?
The time line for disposal is set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process, which could take 3 years or even longer. Drilling and emplacement could be done in two months or less.
Would the drilling cause earthquakes?
Is waste transportation a problem?
The Deep Isolation approach is modular, with minimally invasive repositories located around the country. If a community provides informed consent, the repository could be put close to the nuclear reactor that created the waste. Contrast that with a large tunneled repository where the waste must be transported for thousands of miles.
If putting the isolation facility near the reactor is not possible, then another location could be found within a short or longer distance, depending on what the people of the state want.
How would you monitor the waste?
Has the concept been vetted by experts?
Yes. Former US Secretary of Energy and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu says:
“Deep isolation is adapting recently developed drilling technologies to make disposal of nuclear fuel less expensive and even safer than other approaches. This is a technology that could prove important, not only in the US, but around the world.”
Nobel Laureate Arno Penzias says:
“Deep Isolation offers an ingenious and practical approach for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. I believe that their technology is the key to the solution to the nuclear waste problem.”
Will an encasement feel warm to the touch when it has fuel in it?
Yes. The initial fuel is hot; that’s why it is kept in cooling pools. After several years, it has cooled below the boiling point of water, and calculations show that the canister and the surrounding rock (to a depth of a few meters) will be about 40°F warmer than the natural rock in the first 30 years of the deposition. Then the temperature will drop (as the radioisotopes of Sr-90 and Cs-137 disappear by radioactive decay).
What kind of steel will be used and how thick?
Will there be an oxidizing or reducing environment in the Deep Isolation disposal?
In the Deep Isolation solution, the spent fuel canisters will be in contact with a reducing environment.
How much radioactivity will be emitted by the spent fuel before the repository is sealed? How much after the drillhole is sealed?
Until it is sealed, a potential leakage path is the vertical access drillhole. No leakage is expected through this path, because the engineered barriers offer substantial protection. Nevertheless, radioactivity will be closely monitored in the borehole to assure that this is the case.
How will workers and the environment be protected during insertion?
Will you be removing waste from dry casks and if so what are the process and safety issues?
The transfer of fuel assemblies from pools to dry casks takes place at the reactors using cranes and other equipment. Similar facilities and equipment can be used to transfer the fuel assemblies from dry casks to disposal canisters; these canisters will be placed in reinforced transfer casks for transport to the disposal site.
The Department of Energy has designed procedures for such transfer; the difference, for Deep Isolation, is that the transportation will be local, often within the perimeter of the nuclear power plant, or only a few miles from the plant. In contrast, transport to the proposed centralized tunnel facilities, such as the Yucca Mountain repository, would have to take place over thousands of miles of US roadways and railways.
Will the encased spent fuel be as safe as dry casks?
Is it safeguarded from terrorists?
Deep geology provides a barrier that gives significant protection against a terrorist attempt to obtain spent nuclear fuel. Contrast the deep isolation storage location to either temporary storage in pools or in dry cask interim storage on or near the surface.
What does a Deep Isolation repository cost?
The drilling costs are low, since drilling is a mature and competitive industry. A two-mile-long repository can be constructed for under $10M, and hold 300 tons of waste, so the cost is under $130,000 per ton. Contrast this with the cost of a tunnel facility. The US OMB estimates completion of Yucca will cost $96B to hold 70,000 tons of waste, at a cost of $1.4M per ton, over 10x higher than the cost of the Deep Isolation solution.
How could multiple drilled repositories a mile deep be less expensive than a second tunnel repository that is only 1000 feet deep?
The lower cost for Deep Isolation directly reflects the fact that our drillholes have much less volume. Drilled repositories make much more efficient use of space. The Yucca repository will have 40 miles of tunnel, typically 18-25 feet in diameter; the waste occupies less than 0.4% of the volume. For a drilled repository, the waste occupies about 20% of the volume, making it much more space efficient. The lower volume of rock removed, compared to tunnel disposal methods, also minimizes the disruption to the rock.
Would US government financial support be required?
It is anticipated that all the costs could be carried by the applicant companies and their investors. Upon completion, the companies would be paid from the Nuclear Waste Fund.
Figure 1 (below). A typical nuclear fuel assembly. The one shown below is a common design for a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR). The fuel pellets for Pressurized Water Reactors are the same size, but placed in somewhat larger fuel assemblies, about 11 inches, and contain more rods. The fuel assembly would be placed in canisters that fit conveniently down drillholes.
Figure 2 (below). Above ground dry cask nuclear waste storage at the decommissioned Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in California.
Figure 3. The Deep Isolation drillhole waste repository concept. The horizontal drillhole has about an 8 to12 inch inner diameter.