Deep Insulation aims to bury nuclear waste using boreholes

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CEO Elizabeth Muller and Deep Isolation chief technology officer Richard Muller are in Texas for their 2019 show.

Photographer: Roman Pino, Courtesy of Deep Isolation

There is no permanent storage of nuclear waste in the United States. Instead, nuclear waste is stored in dry casks at current operating and former nuclear power plants across the country.

Deep InsulationA start-up in Berkeley, California, founded by a father-daughter team, aims to change that.

Deep Isolation plans to commercialize the technology to dig 18-inch-diameter holes deep within the Earth’s surface and then slide the radioactive nuclear waste into deep drillings in 14-foot-tall drums. Inside deep geological repositoryJust like a mine or a borehole, nuclear waste can gradually lose its radioactivity over thousands of years without damaging it.

Solving an important problem for the nuclear industry

Although nuclear power produces negligible greenhouse gas emissions, many governments and environmental activists do not consider it a clean energy source as there is no permanent repository to store nuclear waste.

For example, when the European Union published its updated classification of sustainable energy sources on February 2, it included nuclear power as a transitional green energy source only if countries can approve (among other requirements) the safe disposal of radioactive waste from nuclear reactors. .

An artist demonstrating Deep Isolation’s borehole drilling technology.

Artist illustration by Joseph Rule of Raconteur Courtesy of Deep Isolation

Several deep geological deposits are under construction in Europe. “Finland is constructing a permanent nuclear waste disposal at Olkiluoto, which is expected to be ready by 2023. Sweden is expected to build a similar type of nuclear waste disposal in Östhammar in the 2020s, and France aims to have its own geological storage for nuclear,” said a spokesperson. According to Jonathan Cobb, waste by the 2030s World Nuclear Association.

In the United States, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was a precursor to a geological disposal for nuclear waste in the United States. But in 2010, President Barack Obama cut the funding for Yucca Mountain, satisfying the long-standing efforts of Senator Harry Reid, a powerful Congressman for that state.

One solution to this impasse is to use directional drilling instead of mines to bury radioactive nuclear waste underground.

Deep Isolation has been pursuing this idea since 2016.

“We didn’t invent the idea of ​​using wells for draining – it’s been around since the 1980s,” CEO Elizabeth Muller told CNBC. “No one had thought of using directional drilling. That was the key innovation of Deep Insulation.”

Directional drilling makes it possible to drill horizontally and vertically. Nuclear waste can’t be buried too deep because it can’t get too hot or under too much pressure. The sweet spot is 1 to 4 kilometers below the earth’s surface, Muller said.

“This is a really nice range, depending on the rock type, where you can be very confident that the nuclear waste will be safe and you won’t have high pressure and hot rock issues.”

Moving horizontally into a boulder for disposal gives more room to be buried under the same acre of land and also means that waste won’t fall directly into it.

“It’s like a kid going down a slide and slowly starting to rest on the bottom without hitting anything,” Muller said.

An artist demonstrating Deep Isolation’s drilling technology that goes deep into the Earth’s surface.

Artist illustration by Joseph Rule of Raconteur Courtesy of Deep Isolation

Peter BurnsThe director of the University of Notre Dame Center for Sustainable Energy had never heard of Deep Insulation until CNBC contacted him to get the idea. He thinks he’s promised.

“Deep-well disposal of nuclear waste has been considered a viable approach for some types of waste for many years,” he said. “Deep Insulation brings a new interpretation to the idea of ​​directional borehole drilling. This is promising as it will allow settlements in carefully selected geological horizons so that the geology itself is the protective barrier.”

A father-daughter duo digs

Deep Isolation was started in 2016 by Elizabeth Muller and her father, Richard Muller, a physicist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who served as chief technology officer.

Before starting Deep Isolation, Mullers founded a nonprofit. Berkeley Worldwhich collects and distributes information about climate, such as world air pollution data and global temperature data.

“My God, we’ve been working together for about 15 years,” Elizabeth Muller told CNBC. “He’s a scientist, I’m not,” Elizabeth Muller said.

After launching Berkeley Earth, Mullers thought they could have a major impact on slowing global warming by allowing China to burn less coal and more natural gas. Mullers named their company Global Shale, but it didn’t go very far. The Chinese bureaucracy thwarted their ambitions.

However, this winding road taught Mullers the directional drilling used by oil companies.

According to Elizabeth Muller, drilling technology has improved significantly. Elizabeth Muller, “You can go a mile deep and then have a horizontal section going more than one mile.” she said. “And that’s all pretty standard indeed. And you’re entering levels of rocky areas where there’s been no movement for millions of years.”

Deep Isolation has raised $21 million so far, of which $20 million came in a round that closed at the end of 2020. NAC InternationalA company that transports and stores nuclear fuel.

In March, Deep Isolation was awarded $3.6 million by the Department of Energy as part of a larger project. $36 million grant to 11 companies they all want to promote the use of advanced nuclear waste. Deep Isolation is leading efforts to install a canister to minimize fuel storage and waste management costs.

became the Ministry of Energy. investigating the feasibility of using deep boreholes for both nuclear waste disposal and geothermal exploration. However local opposition communities blocked the project and DOE in 2017 announced the termination of the project.

According to the government, it should restart its exploration of boreholes. Matt BowenA research fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy, Dr.

“Spent nuclear fuel assemblies have yet to be disposed of in deep drillings anywhere in the world. Many, including myself, think there is a lot of promise to the deep drilling approach and the U.S. government should work in that direction to fill research gaps,” Bowen told CNBC.

Deep drilling is cheaper and therefore more suitable for countries with smaller amounts of nuclear waste or where there is a small amount of high-level nuclear waste that needs to be disposed of, such as in countries. Hanford site inside Benton County, Washington.

Deep Isolation’s technology show in Texas in 2019.

Photographer: Roman Pino, Courtesy of Deep Isolation

In 2019, Deep Isolation conducted a test of borehole drilling technology near Cameron, Texas, putting an empty can in a borehole and then picking it up.

The show was more important to its political success – the technology was already proven, but the start-up managed to enlist the support of local communities.

“I think it really showed that private companies that take a more agile approach can succeed even when the government has failed repeatedly,” Elizabeth Muller said. she said. “And that’s the same approach we’re trying to bring to real use now.”

It will continue to be difficult to get local communities to agree to drill a borehole near them. David W. Shoemakeris a retired professor of chemistry working on nuclear waste disposal at Western University in Ontario. He said the process of queuing up many small distributed sites can be a “license nightmare”, although he and those associated with Deep Isolaion consider it “trustworthy.”

“Identification and selection of suitable disposal sites has proven to be a long and arduous technical process in many countries and is fraught with political and social issues. Yucca Mountain is just the most extreme example,” Shoesmith said.

5-10 years later

Deep Insulation completed project evaluation and design work for customers, including nonprofits Electric Power Research Institute, Sloveniamultinational ERDO Association and Estonia. The next step is to drill a borehole, test its safety, go through the licensing process and start disposing of nuclear waste. That’s still five to 10 years later, Muller said.

Nuclear industry observers are optimistic, even if they don’t see Deep Isolation’s solution as the answer to all nuclear waste.

“I’m not a geologist, but I see no reason why the approach wouldn’t be viable,” he said. Steve Nesbit, President of the American Nuclear Association. “I don’t think there is a complete, one-size-fits-all solution for all radioactive waste disposal needs, but it seems very suitable for some applications.”

Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation The nonprofit Clean Air Task Force agrees. “More options beyond a deep geological repository or temporary storage can offer many potential opportunities and value,” Rampal told CNBC.

The biggest obstacle to Deep Isolation is the conservative and cautious nature of the nuclear industry. But pressure is mounting on the nuclear industry to find durable solutions for how to safely dispose of nuclear waste.

“This comes because of climate change, global warming, and people who want to have a future for the nuclear industry, and their acknowledgment that nuclear waste disposal has to happen first if we’re going to have a future for the nuclear industry,” he said. Elizabeth Muller.

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