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California Startup Proposes Bent Borehole for Nuclear Waste; SD Shale Not Likely Target

A few days ago, Donald Pay left a note about a new company called Deep Isolation that might want to dispose of nuclear waste in boreholes in South Dakota. Deep isolation certainly sounds like something one could find in South Dakota, so let’s read more.

This March 20, 2018, Bloomberg article details the aspirations of father-daughter team Richard and Elizabeth Muller to tuck nuclear waste canisters into long tunnels:

The key to the technology, according to the Mullers, is to take advantage of fracking techniques to place nuclear waste in 2-mile-long tunnels, much deeper than they’ve been before—a mile below the Earth’s surface, where they’ll be surrounded by shale. “We’re using a technique that’s been made cheap over the last 20 years,” says Richard, a famed physicist and climate change expert. “We could begin putting this waste underground right away” [Ashlee Vance, “This Father-Daugher Team Says It Has a Cheaper, Safer Way to Bury Nuclear Waste,” Bloomberg, 2018.03.20].

Hold on—two miles long, one mile underground… we must be turning a corner, right? Yup—that “corner” is actually a gradual curve of a thousand feet, followed by a slight upward turn.

Deep Isolation, FAQ, March 2018, p. 14.
Deep Isolation, FAQ, March 2018, p. 14.

Richard Muller explains the drilling and disposal process in this video:

Note the advantages of the Mullers’ proposal over the Deep Borehole Field Test, which proposed to test the feasibility of drilling three miles straight down into bedrock to dispose of military nuclear waste but which the Trump Administration canned in 2017. Deep Isolation uses proving horizontal drilling technology. It drills less distance through softer shale. It lays waste canisters end to end, horizontally, instead of stacking them on top of each other, which would put additional strain on the canisters. The Mullers’ technology also covers a broader range of nuclear waste, disposing of spent metal fuel rods as extracted from nuclear power plants, encased in steel canisters filled with bentonite.

Deep Isolation also claims they could do the job for $130,000 per ton of waste, compared to the $1.4 million per ton that disposal at Yucca Mountain:

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.

Equally important, no humans go underground for a drilled repository, and that saves the need to have ventilation or below ground human-safety certification. The waste is emplaced using flexible coiled tubing, a technology that has been highly developed by the oil and gas drilling industry [Deep Isolation, FAQ, March 2018, p. 12].

Mr. Pay expresses concern that presence of lots of shale unpierced by oil and gas development could make South Dakota a prime target for Deep Isolation’s proposed L-boreholes. However, the Mullers say shale is so plentiful that their disposal projects could likely be built near the sources of the nuclear waste:

It’d be best to keep the tunnels close to existing nuclear waste sites, the Mullers say. The U.S. is so shale-rich that the waste disposal tunnels could be placed near nuclear production sites, so no hauling of waste would be required. The boreholes would also be much deeper than something like Yucca, vastly reducing the chance of radioactive waste leaking into the water supply. “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.” Also, unlike at Yucca, machines could handle all the tunnel work, says Richard: “We’re cheaper because we remove a lot less dirt and don’t put people underground” [Vance, 2018.03.20].

With no nuclear power plants in South Dakota, the Mullers’ interest in shipping waste to South Dakota would seem to be small compared to closer-to-source sites. Even in the neighborhood of existing “interim” disposal sites, the Mullers say they will only work with communities that want their project:

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.

Deep Isolation will work with communities to help them make an informed decision about which option is the best fit for them. With over 60 locations in the United States that are currently storing nuclear waste, we have indications that at least a few of them are interested in exploring the option of a deep-isolation facility near them.

…“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.

…The community could decide to leave the nuclear waste at the reactor site in cooling pools or dry casks, transport it to an interim storage site, or transport it to an alternative permanent disposal facility, should one become available. We will work only with communities who decide that Deep Isolation is preferable to these other options [Deep Isolation, FAQ, March 2018, p. 4].

The Mullers face a variety of hurdles. They need to raise a lot of money just promote their idea, not to mention get equipment and licenses. They also need to get Congress to help, since “current federal law prohibits” the Department of Energy “from using privately developed geologic disposal systems.” And don’t expect the Trump Administration to get behind Deep Isolation: the Mullers have President Obama’s Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, on their advisory board, and Trump will be gosh-darned if he’ll implement any ideas that Obama’s people think are good.


  1. mike fom iowa 2018-05-27 10:40

    Bentonite? Isn’t that like Kryptonite to the Walton Klan?

  2. Robert McTaggart 2018-05-27 14:07

    It has some promise to reduce some costs, since it would use existing technology that industry uses today. Shale is a good material to enclose and seal in anything that is buried in it, which is what you want if you desire to isolate the wastes.

    But once it is buried, I don’t think anyone will be extracting it for further processing. My preference is to bury whatever is left AFTER extracting all of the energy we can. Some of the critical elements in there are in fact beneficial for renewable energy and energy storage, and we would be throwing those away too.

    Cost-wise it is currently cheaper to bury it. This may allow one to reduce the costs of isolation and use locally available shale for the isolation instead of transporting it elsewhere.

  3. Robert McTaggart 2018-05-27 14:10

    Oh…the canisters are supposedly retrievable. So one may be able to bury it now cheaply and collect it later when processing costs come down, or you build the reactors that can consume the wastes directly.

  4. Donald Pay 2018-05-27 17:36

    All I’m saying is this is something that bears watching, and if you hear something, speak up.

    I agree these guys are likely a ways away from proposing SD shale for their project, but I’ve been following this issue for 4 decades, and all of these ideas start out with a line that goes, “There are a lot of places that have [pick any geologic medium].” Then they will propose a “scientific study,” and people will be fooled into thinking that, yeah, we’re all 4Science. Sure, we are, but not a lot of places that have exactly the kind of geologic setting combined with political corruption and a desperate social and economic environment that the nuke dumpers are looking for. South Dakota has the type of corruption and desperate economic conditions that appeal to waste dumpers. Remember, Trump got rid of consent, which Obama was pushing, too, so it is important to get your politicians on the record regarding these issues, because when it comes, it will come fast and with fury.

    Shale in western South Dakota has been under investigation by one or another nuclear waste disposal proposal since the late 1970s, as part of Department of Energy studies. RESPEC, the South Dakota engineering and geological consulting firm based in Rapid City, has a 4 decade long history of being involved in high-level radioactive waste disposal studies, as have profs and graduate students at the SD School of Mines and Technology. It would be a huge mistake to not follow this issue closely, and then be surprised when the waste is coming in.

  5. grudznick 2018-05-27 19:33

    grudznick is all #4Science and boreholes, but these seem so deep that they may actually increase the risk of mutated microbes crawling up to the surface. What safeguards will they have in effect to prevent this, Mr. Pay?

  6. Robert McTaggart 2018-05-27 19:57

    The problem with a consent-based solution has not been the desire to include public opinion in the process of selecting a site: It has been the failure so far to deliver an actual solution.

    If you followed the more recent legislation regarding Yucca Mountain (which the Senate is kicking around now), Nevada legislators wanted to include consent-based methods on the bill, and it was roundly and soundly rejected.

    The biggest irony is that Nevada wants to push consent-based approaches, and the current locations of our nuclear waste have become de facto storage sites without any route for consent-based removal.

    So if the present borehole approach would facilitate more local drilling and remove concerns about transportation, or avoid storing waste in unwanted locations altogether, then it is worth investigating.

    The good news is that retrievability of the canisters now facilitates language in any formal agreement to withdraw consent at a later date. You can monitor things and trigger a removal based upon independent readings, and you don’t have to take anyone’s word on either side of the issue.

    But that means you really need at least two sites approved, with at least one agreeing to accept wastes whose consent has been removed.

    If nothing happens after the waste is stored, then the waste will have been successfully isolated from the biosphere. Solar advocates should applaud, since they may need a similar process to isolate metals from their panels (Arsenic, Cadmium, etc.).

  7. Donald Pay 2018-05-27 21:45

    The current locations of our nuclear waste is storage on site or in dry cask storage nearby. This seems to be a technically adequate solution for now, in most cases, and far better than building temporary off-site storage, which would require double transportation risk. I’ve noticed that the New Mexico proposal for temporary storage is meeting considerable opposition. I’d be concerned about South Dakota shale being fingered for “temporary” storage as well.

  8. Donald Pay 2018-05-27 21:48

    The horizontal directional drilling has been considered by the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board before. It’s not a new idea. I believe some tests were done in Sweden about four years ago.

  9. Robert McTaggart 2018-05-27 21:59

    Depends on who you talk to with regard to opposition. Many communities that have concrete cask storage want it out of there despite the science showing it is adequate and safe.

    The storage of waste in their current locations is adequate for now, but the costs/penalties for the US government not accepting the wastes for final disposal will only increase.

    And as we know from this blog….we are the government….so it will cost us more even if no new waste is generated. Which is money that could be better spent on other things.

    As is often the case, the solutions to nuclear waste isolation do not face technical barriers…it is the political will to say yes to a solution that has been elusive.

    The biggest thing here as always will be cost. Can they show that the cost savings will bear fruit?

  10. Donald Pay 2018-05-28 08:03

    I think it is more this fact: what is proposed by the nuclear industry and/or the government is marketing, not a technical solution. The marketing starts out with a promise to meet high standards of isolation. “Oh, we’ll meet all government standards,” the nuclear bamboozlers say, as they begin a relentless effort to weaken standards, or keep them weak. You go through four or five generations of this, and you come to the conclusion that there is no technical solution that meets tough standards that the nuclear industry and the government is willing to pay for. Nuclear power never was “too cheap to meter,” and isolating the wastes will cost more than anyone wants to pay. So, what we get from the nuclear bamboozlers are relentless efforts to market nuclear waste to states and local communities that might be desperate enough and/or corrupt enough to overlook the long-term good of the community to make a little short-term money. And, that is why South Dakota is a target. If crystalline rock or shale is everywhere, why do they keep coming back over and over to South Dakota. Think about that.

  11. Dana P 2018-05-28 08:51

    Donald — thank you (as always) for all of your excellent insight and feedback. Especially on issues such as this.

    What would be your advice as to how we can keep an eye on things? Get more involved? Be more proactive than reactive (if that is even possible)?

  12. Robert McTaggart 2018-05-28 09:55

    Correction…there is no technical solution that will satisfy anti-nuclear forces, regardless of how much science and engineering there is behind it.

    Oh there will be some who will bamboozle you into thinking that renewables are clean so the wastes don’t exist or don’t matter. Or that treating those wastes is not energy intensive. Or that you will not need even greater underground storage for chemical wastes from renewables to isolate them from the biosphere.

    But you and I know better.

    If you want more wind and solar…go for it! But please do renewables the right way. Have a plan for carbon-free back-up and another for recycling and isolating the wastes from the biosphere BEFORE you push widespread adoption.

    Oops…that will make solar and wind more expensive and less cost-effective. My bad.

    Solar and wind should be better than coal with regard to recycling, but right now they are not. We recycle about half of our coal fly ash today. We hardly do any solar or wind recycling.

    I am more worried that the shale would be used to isolate the far greater volumes of wastes from wind and solar, particularly arsenic and cadmium, and that direct isolation will occur without any recycling simply because it is cheaper. Where is the concern about that for the aquifers?

  13. Robert McTaggart 2018-05-28 10:07

    If isolating arsenic and cadmium in shale far below the aquifers does not bother you, then isolating nuclear waste in shale far below the aquifers should not bother you, particularly because the latter will be smaller by volume.

  14. Donald Pay 2018-05-28 10:35

    I think I am remembering this correctly. Three decades ago the decision was made to not subject South Dakota water sources to the risks associated with disposal of hazardous wastes down disposal wells. That decision was certainly pushed by environment groups, but it was supported by many others, including local governments who are tasked to deliver good quality water to their residents. The SDDENR pretty much agreed at that time, as did the Board of Minerals and Environment. Disposal of arsenic and cadmium and radioactive waste using this method would not be allowed under South Dakota regulation, at least if those regulations are still in place. They may have changed. The EPA or the NRC could step in and permit these disposal wells, because their regulations are less stringent, one of the only instances where that is true. However, EPA, at least, generally likes to bow to states when they have standards and regulations that are similar to or more stringent than EPA’s standards. So, no, any wastes from recycling solar panels will not be dumped down wells. If corrupt politicians try to allow that I expect the good citizens of South Dakota won’t.

  15. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-05-28 10:35

    I agree, Donald, we should watch it. I would imagine DD or a Republican business-über-alles successor (or even a Democratic governor facing pressure from School of Mines, RESPEC, and other business interests) would follow past actions and offer South Dakota’s shale for a profit to Deep Isolation and could make a case that, instead of dickering with dozens of separate localities to convince them to keep the nuclear waste onsite but underground, they could save time and money by consolidating drilling and storage in one friendly and geologically stable state.

  16. Robert McTaggart 2018-05-28 11:52

    Mr. Pay,

    If you apply the same principle to nuclear waste that you have argued for before to solar waste, each state should take care of its own waste.

    So why shouldn’t South Dakota be responsible for the solar waste and wind waste it produces? If you are not isolating hazardous chemicals from the biosphere, you are storing them at the surface. Recycling helps, but we are not doing that today. Everything goes straight to the dump.

    I have serious doubts that Wisconsin would be happy to accept any wind and solar waste that South Dakota produces. We’re pals, but not that kind of pals.

    The simple fact is that producing energy generates waste. As they say, there is no free lunch. If you choose to produce energy in a manner that generates more waste, that is on you…at least be honest about it and take care of it. That includes cleaning the atmosphere of carbon emitted via natural gas back-up.

  17. Donald Pay 2018-05-28 13:27

    When environmental groups and industry groups hammered out solid waste recycling issues in the late 80s to early 90s, it was found necessary to create “mandatory” programs to generate enough product to make it feasible for the market to operate and for research to be done and scaled up. There are still fits and starts in recycling due to price fluctuations, but recycling of most products now occurs in most localities in the US.

    I expect we will see a similar dynamic play out in solar and wind components. I certainly would be happy if people started putting together some ideas, avenues for research, etc. It would be a great project for engineering and chemistry departments to engage.

  18. Robert McTaggart 2018-05-28 14:42

    and physics….don’t forget physics ;^).

  19. grudznick 2018-05-28 19:16

    And math, and probably English departments, too. When all these scientist types get rolling together, you know they need math guys and English teacher ladies to help communicate all the news to the public. Press people, they probably call them. They communicate the ideas. In English.

  20. Robert McTaggart 2018-05-28 20:11

    The scientists and engineers are usually trained in both mathematics and technical writing. The bigger groups can afford to have some variety in the backgrounds.

  21. grudznick 2018-05-28 20:40

    Ok. Then all we need are scientists who have English as a proficient language in their command. Let us dig this new borehole sideways.

  22. Robert McTaggart 2018-05-29 11:54

    I would like to see more English, History, and Sociology majors get a minor in Chemistry, Physics, Computer Science or Statistics. Unfortunately the math is a a hurdle. You at least need a couple of calculus courses in there, and there are just a lot of majors that avoid math as much as possible.

    So typically a lot of the technical writers start out as Chemistry, Engineering, or Physics majors and drift into technical writing.

    I don’t think it is good for some majors to avoid mathematics, and it isn’t good for the other group to avoid the classes that have some intensity in writing, reading, and analyzing.

    The nuclear field is one where you do need both. You need to communicate with the public, and you have to know something about the technical nature of nuclear power. Lots of business, economics, and policy.

  23. Gary Schneider 2019-05-05 18:02

    I was browsing and just found this article (which was posted almost a year ago). Please note that Dr. Henry Crichlow, who has had a long, distinguished career in the petroleum industry, including serving for almost a decade as the director/chairman of the school of petroleum and geological engineering at the University of Oklahoma, has been working on this for almost 20 years. Dr. Crichlow has a number of patents on (1) using deep, horizontal wellbores for disposal of high-level radioactive waste (HLW), (2) siting requirements for geologic repositories, (3) capsule designs for spent nuclear fuel (SNF) rods and other HLW, etc. Instead of being threatened by the ‘competition’ presented by the Berkeley, California-based company, Deep Isolation, Inc., we are pleased that they are spending a lot of time and effort promoting this technology to the attention of the general public. The fact that Deep Isolation has made such strong promotional efforts for using horizontal wellbores for HLW disposal clearly suggests that the NuclearSAFE method is a good (if not the best) solution to the problem of nuclear waste. It seems that, once word gets out about a very good idea, everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. By contrast, NuclearSAFE has already conducted a considerable amount of engineering work to ensure that this can be done safely and economically. We actually know how to drill horizontal wells, and we have patented methods and designs for all phases of the process. If you need your car repaired, you go to an experienced professional mechanic who knows what they are doing. In a similar manner, if the U.S. government eventually decides to use deep, horizontal wellbores for HLW disposal, they should go to drilling experts who know how to get the job done. See Short resumes of the NuclearSAFE management and a list of the patents (published and pending) can be found on this website.

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