Elizabeth Mueller, CEO, and Richard Mueller, CEO of Deep Isolation, in Texas at a 2019 demonstration.

Photographer: Roman Pina, provided with deep isolation

There is no permanent repository for nuclear waste in the United States. Instead, nuclear waste is stored in dry barrels at the sites of existing and former nuclear power plants across the country.

Deep Isolation, a startup founded by a daughter-in-law team in Berkeley, California, is looking to change that.

Deep Isolation plans to commercialize the technology to dig wells 18 inches deep into the Earth’s surface and then slide radioactive nuclear waste into 14-foot canisters into deep wells. In a deep geological repository, such as a mine or well, nuclear waste can slowly lose its radioactivity over thousands of years without causing harm.

Solving a key problem for the nuclear industry

Although nuclear energy generates negligible greenhouse gas emissions, many governments and environmental activists do not consider it a source of clean energy because there is no permanent repository for storing nuclear waste.

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

Artistic representation of Deep Isolation well drilling technology.

Performed by artist Joseph Ruhl of Raconteur, provided with deep insulation

Several deep geological repositories are being built in Europe. “Finland is building a permanent nuclear waste disposal site in Olkiluoto, which is expected to be ready in 2023. Sweden is expected to start building a similar type of nuclear waste starting sometime in the 2020s in Estamar, and France is looking to have its own geological repository for nuclear waste by the 2030s, according to Jonathan Kobe, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association.

In the United States, Mount Yuka in Nevada was a leader in the geological disposal of nuclear waste in the United States. But in 2010, President Barack Obama cut funding for Yucca Mountain, satisfying the long-standing efforts of a powerful member of Congress from that state, Senator Harry Reed.

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

Deep isolation has been implementing this idea since 2016.

“We didn’t invent the idea of ​​using wells for recycling – it’s been around since the 1980s,” Director General Elizabeth Mueller told CNBC. “No one thought to use directional drilling. And that was the key innovation that Deep Isolation brought.”

Directional drilling allows you to drill holes both horizontally and vertically. Nuclear waste should not be buried too deep because it cannot be too hot or under too much pressure. The sweet spot is at a depth of 1 to 4 kilometers below the earth’s surface, Mueller said.

“It’s a really good range where you can, depending on the type of rock, be very confident that nuclear waste will be safe and that you’re not getting problems with high pressure and hot rock.”

Moving horizontally to the recycling stone allows for more burial space under the same area of ​​land, and also means that waste will not fall straight down.

“It’s like a child coming down a slide and gently stopping at the bottom without crashing into anything,” Mueller said.

An artist who shows the technology of drilling wells Deep Isolation, which descends deep into the Earth’s surface.

Performed by artist Joseph Ruhl of Raconteur, provided with deep insulation

Peter Burns, director of the Center for Sustainable Energy at the University of Notre Dame, never heard of deep isolation until CNBC contacted him to find out about the idea. He believes it promises.

“Disposal of nuclear waste into deep wells has for many years been recognized as an effective approach for some types of waste,” he said. “Deep Isolation offers a new twist to the idea of ​​directional well drilling. It seems promising as it will accommodate carefully selected geological horizons so that the geology itself will be a protective barrier.”

A duo of father and daughter digging

Deep Isolation was launched in 2016 by Elizabeth Mueller and her father Richard Mueller, a physicist and Honored Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who holds the position of Chief Technology Officer.

Before they began deep isolation, Muellers founded a nonprofit organization called Berkeley Earth that collects and disseminates climate information such as global air pollution data and global temperature data.

“We’ve been working together for almost 15 years,” Elizabeth Mueller told CNBC. “He’s a scientist and I’m not,” said Elizabeth Mueller.

After the launch of Berkeley Earth, Muellers thought they could have a big impact on slowing global warming by forcing China to burn less coal and more natural gas. The Mueller family named their company Global Shale, but it didn’t go very far. The Chinese bureaucracy thwarted their ambitions.

However, this detour taught Mueller about directional drilling used by oil companies.

Drilling technology has improved significantly, says Elizabeth Mueller. “You can drill a mile deep and then have a horizontal stretch that goes a few miles,” Elizabeth Mueller said. “And it’s all really pretty standard. And you get to a rock level where there’s been no movement for millions of years.”

So far, Deep Isolation has raised $ 21 million, of which $ 20 million went to a round closed in late 2020, led by NAC International, a company that transports and stores nuclear fuel.

In March, Deep Isolation received $ 3.6 million from the Department of Energy under a larger $ 36 million grant to 11 companies seeking to promote the use of advanced nuclear waste. Deep Isolation is working to create canisters to minimize fuel storage and waste management costs.

The Ministry of Energy has been exploring the possibility of using deep wells for both nuclear waste disposal and geothermal research. But opposition from local communities thwarted the project, and in 2017 the Ministry of Health announced the termination of the project.

According to Matt Bowen, a researcher at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy, the government should raise its research in wells.

“So far, there has been no disposal of spent nuclear fuel assemblies in deep wells anywhere in the world. Many people – myself included – think that the deep well approach has many promises and that the US government must work to close this gap. research, ”Bowen told CNBC.

Deep wells are cheaper and therefore better suited for countries with less nuclear waste or where countries have small amounts of high-level nuclear waste that need to be disposed of, such as at the Hanford site in Benton County, Washington.

Demonstration of Deep Isolation technology in Texas in 2019.

Photographer: Roman Pina, provided with deep isolation

In 2019, Deep Isolation conducted testing of its well drilling technology near Cameron, Texas, by putting an empty canister into the well and then extracting it.

The demonstration was more important for its political success – the technology has already been tested, but the startup has managed to enlist the support of local communities.

“I think it has really shown that private companies that use a more agile approach can succeed, even if the government fails over and over again,” said Elizabeth Mueller. “And that’s the same approach we’re now trying to bring to the actual disposal.”

According to David W. Schussmith, an honored professor of chemistry at Western University in Ontario who is studying nuclear waste disposal, forcing local communities to agree to dig a well nearby will remain a challenge. While he believes the company and the people associated with Deep Isolaion are “trustworthy,” he said the process of building many small distributed sites could be a “licensing nightmare”.

“Identifying and selecting suitable disposal sites has been a long and tedious technical process in many countries and has been fraught with political and social problems. Mount Yuka is just the most extreme example,” Schusmith said.

Five to 10 years

Deep Isolation has completed project appraisal and project work for clients, including the nonprofit Institute for Electricity Research in Slovenia, the multinational association ERDO and Estonia. The next step is to drill the well, check its safety, license and start disposing of nuclear waste. That’s another five to 10 years, Mueller said.

Nuclear industry observers are optimistic, even if they do not see the Deep Isolation solution as the answer to all nuclear waste.

“I’m not a geologist, but I see no reason why this approach should be impossible,” said Steve Nesbitt, president of the American Nuclear Society. “I don’t think it’s a complete, universal solution to all your radioactive waste disposal needs, but it seems to be well suited for some applications.”

Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation at the Nonprofit Clean Air Task Force, agrees. “More options outside of a deep geological repository or temporary repository can offer a lot of potential and value,” Rampal told CNBC.

The biggest barrier to deep isolation is the conservative and cautious nature of the nuclear industry. But there is growing pressure on the nuclear industry to come up with permanent solutions for how to safely dispose of nuclear waste.

“This is due to climate change, global warming and people who want to have a future for the nuclear industry, and recognize that the disposal of nuclear waste must come first if we want to have a future for the nuclear industry,” said Elisabeth Mueller.

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