Nuclear Waste: A Social Responsibility

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?

Berkeley, CA – On Wednesday 16 January, Deep Isolation, a California-based private company, demonstrated publicly that prototype canisters built for nuclear waste can be successfully placed and retrieved thousands of feet underground. With over 40 observers from multiple countries, attendees included representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear and oil & gas industry professionals, investors, environmentalists, and local citizens.  This first-of-its-kind demonstration represents a significant milestone for the nuclear waste industry.

Deep Isolation’s patented technology leverages standard drilling technology that has been perfected over the past two decades in the oil & gas industry. The approach was previously considered impossible by many nuclear experts, in part because of the challenge of retrieval. Deep Isolation had been testing their technology in private, and this was the first time that members of the public were invited to see the demonstration. No radioactive material was used in the test, and the location was not one where actual waste would be disposed.

Participants saw first-hand the Deep Isolation prototype canister designed to hold highly radioactive nuclear waste and were able to tour the test rig and site while the test was being conducted. Professor Scott Tinker, Director of the Bureau of Economic Geology and the State Geologist of Texas, has been following Deep Isolation’s progress. “Managing nuclear waste is an important, unmet commitment to the American people. I was intrigued by this innovative approach to nuclear waste disposal”, said Dr. Tinker. “The technology is adapted from the oilfield and is straightforward and time tested. The team was able to answer questions around public perception and environmental risk.”

This is the first time that such a test has ever been carried out, and demonstrates the advantages of a private-public-partnership approach.  Deep Isolation’s objective is to safely and securely dispose of nuclear waste faster than other options while building consensus through genuine stakeholder engagement.  Elizabeth Muller, Deep Isolation’s CEO emphasized that “Stakeholder engagement is where our solution began.  Meaningful consultation cannot happen once a technology has been confirmed.  To prepare for this public demonstration, we met with national environmental groups, as well as local leaders, to listen to concerns, incorporate suggestions, and build our solution around their needs and our customers’.”

The canister held no waste, but a steel rod simulated the weight of true waste. The canister was lowered over 2000 feet deep in an existing drillhole using a wireline cable and then pushed using an underground “tractor” into a long horizontal storage section.  The canister was released and the tractor and cable withdrawn.  Several hours later, the tractor was placed back in the hole, where it latched and retrieved the canister, bringing it back to the surface.

Our team has worked tirelessly to reach this moment,” says Rod Baltzer, Deep Isolation’s Chief Operations Officer. “We have been working on canister design, drilling technology, stakeholder engagement and other aspects, and today, we were able to show people our disposal concept using a prototype canister.  It was incredibly special to share this accomplishment with many of the key people who have made it possible, and with our guests who can see how this solution could benefit them, their organizations and communities.”

Dr. Richard Muller, Deep Isolation Chief Technology Officer, notes that “We have not invented new drilling technology; the oil and gas industry has already perfected directional drilling. What we are doing is using this technology for an unexpected and extremely important new application. Right now, the U.S. is holding 80,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste. Something must be done with this, and every major scientific group that has studied the challenge concluded that putting it deep underground is the safest solution for the present and future generations.” He further explains that the method has significant advantages over the widely considered alternative of putting the waste in mined tunnels. “A drilled repository allows you to go deeper while disturbing less rock.  It is both safer and less expensive than a mined repository”, says Professor Muller.

In 2019, Deep Isolation is focused on both the U.S. and the international market for nuclear waste disposal. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are about 400 thousand tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel waste temporarily stored in pools and dry casks at hundreds of sites around the world. No country has an operational geological repository for spent fuel disposal.


About Deep Isolation

Berkeley based Deep Isolation is a leading innovator in nuclear waste disposal solutions. Founded through a passion for environmental stewardship, scientific ingenuity, and American entrepreneurship, Deep Isolation’s world-class team of experts has developed a patented solution using directional drilling to safely secure waste deep underground. For more information, contact

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Blog by Liz Muller, CEO on April 16, 2018

Liz’s Story

Prior to forming Deep Isolation, I had never imagined myself working in the nuclear industry, let alone nuclear waste. I am a newcomer in a remarkably small field where everyone else seems to know one another. Well, now many of them already know about us.

The best problems are those that most people consider unsolvable, but which aren’t. It is unbelievable how many people warned us away from tackling the nuclear waste problem. Don’t we understand that our government isn’t functioning when it comes to nuclear waste? Don’t we understand that there hasn’t been any progress in over 30 years?

We took those warnings as an indication of opportunity. Despite the roadblocks set up by preconceived prejudices, I believe that the nuclear waste problem can be solved. Not only that, I believe it can be solved within the next few years. I will not pass on the problem to my two young children – the buck stops here.

Challenges are opportunities. We are doing something that has never been done before. And that’s much of what makes it so exciting.

At Berkeley Earth, I spent almost a decade tackling problems relating to global warming and air pollution. Those too are big problems, with vast amounts of misinformation and public confusion, disagreement among experts, and enormous political pressures. The key to a solution on global warming is strict objectivity, innovation, and careful analysis of contentious data. Now Deep Isolation is bringing that objectivity, together with some fresh ideas, to the nuclear waste industry. We can draw on the vast advances made by the drilling industry over the past 30 years, together with a few new concepts of our own, to dramatically improve the safety and reduce the cost of disposing of nuclear waste.

We don’t need to build vast centralized repositories with humans hauling highly radioactive waste underground. We can improve waste isolation by going deeper, while simultaneously decreasing the risks of transportation and exposure to workers.

One in three Americans currently lives within 50 miles of a nuclear waste repository. That’s because the current waste is stored temporary in cooling pools or in dry casks at nuclear reactors. Some communities are distressed by this situation, and the continued inability to move forward with any central disposal site. In many cases, Deep Isolation can offer communities a safer solution: put the current waste a mile down, and do it soon (within a few years). Communities that prefer to wait for a central government repository can do so. But for sites that are unhappy with the existing options, we provide an additional choice.

If they choose to do so, we can work together to secure the waste already in their community under a billion tons of rock. We plan to seek not only “informed consent” (which I consider a bare minimum), but “enthusiastic partnership”. We can start with the waste at just one site. We expect that as other communities see what Deep Isolation can do, they will want to join in this approach.

We are making significant progress in clearing the legal/regulatory path to using the Deep Isolation approach. We believe that the US government will move to level the field. Deep Isolation can meet the current strict NRC standards for nuclear waste. In our own internal reviews, we can be even more stringent.

Our government has failed to solve the nuclear waste problem. They keep struggling, but we know nobody in the field who expects them to provide a solution in the next twenty years. Deep Isolation is in this business to finally get the problem solved, and quickly.

Challenges are opportunities.

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