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Drilling technologies can be used to dispose of nuclear waste

Berkeley, California-based Deep Isolation announced on March 20 it aims to store nuclear waste much more safely and cheaper than existing methods now being used, according to Bloomberg Business Week.

Deep Isolation was started in 2016 by Richard and Elizabeth Muller, a father and daughter team. The Mullers are both deeply committed to an environmental stewardship, scientific ingenuity, and American entrepreneurship.

Daughter and co-founder Elizabeth is the Executive Director of Berkeley Earth and former director at Gov3 and Policy Advisor at the OECD. Co-founder, CTO, and father, Richard Muller is a Deep Isolation patents co-author who served as a Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley for 34 years. He also served on JASON, an independent group of elite scientists which advises the United States government on matters of science and technology.

The road in and out of the Onkalo Nuclear Waste Repository in Finland.

The road in and out of the Onkalo Nuclear Waste Repository in Finland.
Posiva oy

The advent of Deep Isolation
The idea for Deep Isolation grew out of the Mullers’ climate change work. They tried forming a gas fracking venture in China, but that bogged down. So they decided to take their new-found knowledge on drilling techniques and apply it to nuclear waste disposal.

Over the past two years, Deep Isolation has filed patents, studied nuclear waste disposal and hired a team of consultants and staffers to bring its proposed technology to fruition. And the claim they are making is basically pretty simple. They aim to bury nuclear waste in horizontal drillholes deep underground.

Richard Muller presented the idea of using horizontal drillholes in deep shale formations to store nuclear waste at the GSA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, in 2016. In his presentation, Muller pointed out that shale formations have an “excellent deep isolation potential based on the fact that they have held volatile gases (e.g. methane) for millions of years.”

A radioactivity warning symbol.

A radioactivity warning symbol.
Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP/File

Directional Drillhole Configuration
Rather than creating large tunnels, like the ones proposed for the now-defunct Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, Deep Isolation proposes to place nuclear waste in narrow (9 to 14-inch diameter) horizontal drillholes in shale formations. The boreholes would start with a 1-mile vertical access drillhole and will then gently turn horizontal. Canisters containing nuclear waste would be stored in the deep horizontal section.

“The goal is to get this stuff out of the biosphere, and the farther down you go, the less things change,” Elizabeth says. “The waste will have 1 billion tons of rock on top of it and be in shale that has held methane gas and other volatiles for tens to hundreds of millions of years. Things don’t leak out.”

And the company points out another advantage – safety and less cost. Mr. Muller says, “We’re cheaper because we remove a lot less dirt and don’t put people underground.”

The BBC Shanghai is delivering nuclear waste back to Australia after its reprocessing in France  but...

The BBC Shanghai is delivering nuclear waste back to Australia after its reprocessing in France, but green groups have called for the shipment to be halted
Charly Triballeau, AFP

Nuclear waste in the U.S. is getting out of hand
The Mullers’ plan is feasible, yet getting backing for it will be difficult. The process will require licensing from each nuclear site. Allison Macfarlane, the former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says, “The real question is whether such a small startup company would have the resources to go through the licensing over such a long time period.”

With no permanent nuclear waste repository expected to be built until mid-century, spent fuel rods are temporarily entombed in above-ground steel-and concrete-lined casks, while rods that are still too hot sit in pools of constantly circulating water to keep a catastrophic nuclear chain reaction from occurring.

And with nuclear facilities around the country being required to store spent fuel rods on-site, the Department of Energy has reimbursed power companies – and continues to do so – for the temporary storage at power plants. A Blue Ribbon Commission created by the Barack Obama administration determined that by 2020, the DOE will have spent $22 billion on those costs.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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