The deep borehole concept is relatively simple and has been around since the 1950s. Rather than excavate one enormous mine like Yucca Mountain to store all US civilian nuclear waste, this solution would involve depositing nuclear waste in hundreds of narrow holes drilled into the earth’s crust. The idea has plenty of boosters, among them a start-up called Deep Isolation, based in Berkeley, California. Founded by physicist Richard Muller and his daughter Elizabeth Muller, the company launched a Series A investment round earlier this year on the promise that it can bring the borehole concept to fruition. By leveraging the lateral drilling technology developed for tapping into shale gas deposits, the company that professes to be the “SpaceX” of nuclear waste claims to have hacked a solution for the permanent disposal of the United States’ 82,000 metric ton inventory of commercially-generated spent nuclear fuel. Unfortunately, the proposal is full of holes. By pledging to streamline the process of disposing spent nuclear fuel, Deep Isolation has already amassed over $14 million in venture capital. To save nuclear plants from shipping their waste to a centralized repository 2,000 miles away, the company conceives to bury the waste more or less on-site at each power plant in nearly horizontal underground holes. Even though hundreds of boreholes will be required to house the nation’s spent fuel inventory, this option is said to be inexpensive, relative to Yucca Mountain. Deep Isolation cites a lower-limit cost of $2 million to drill one hole but suggests that the approach will save money overall by eliminating things like further interim waste storage, transportation, and much of the necessary construction workforce. Confronted with an economies-of-scale argument that would favor a few, large-capacity facilities, the company markets its approach as “modular,” so that the revenue generated from the completion of one easily-replicated, generic borehole can finance the development of subsequent boreholes.
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 26th March 2020 read more »