John Vidal: In Cameron, Texas, on January 16, 2019. This was a nerve-wracking day for Liz Muller, co-founder of California startup technology company Deep Isolation and her father, Richard Muller, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and now chief technology officer at Deep Isolation. The father-daughter team had invited 40 nuclear scientists, U.S. Department of Energy officials, oil and gas professionals, and environmentalists to witness the first-ever attempt to test whether the latest oil-fracking technology could be used to permanently dispose of the most dangerous nuclear waste. At 11:30 a.m., the crew of oil workers used a wire cable to lower a 30-inch (80-centimeter)-long, 8-inch (20-centimeter)-wide 140-pound (64-kilogram) canister — filled with steel rather than radioactive waste — down a previously drilled borehole. Then, using a tool called a “tractor” invented by the industry to reach horizontally into mile-deep oil reservoirs, they pushed it 400 feet (120 meters) farther away from the borehole through the rock. Five hours later, the crew used the tractor to relocate and collect the canister, attach it to the cable and pull it back to the surface — to the cheers of the workers. Until then, few people in the nuclear industry believed this could be done. By avoiding the need to excavate large, expensive tunnels to store waste below ground, the Deep Isolation team believes it has found a solution to one of the world’s most intractable environmental problems — how to permanently dispose of and potentially retrieve the hundreds of thousands of tons of nuclear waste presently being stored at nuclear power plants and research and military stations around the world. After decades of civil nuclear power and billions of dollars spent researching different geological sites and ways to best dispose of the waste, the problems are both technical and political, and the consensus of governments and industry is that deep burial is the best solution — at least for the moment. Yet, so far, no country has managed to build a deep repository for high-level waste. “Although almost every nuclear country has, in principle, plans for the eventual burial of the most radioactive waste, only a handful have made any progress and nowhere in the world is there operating an authorized site for the deep geological disposal of the highest level radioactive waste,” says Andrew Blowers, author of The Legacy of Nuclear Power and a former member of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CORWM) set up to advise the U.K. government on how and where to site and store nuclear waste. “Currently no options have been able to demonstrate that waste will remain isolated from the environment over the tens to hundreds of thousands of years. There is no reliable method to warn future generations about the existence of nuclear waste dumps,” he says. “The nuclear legacy stretches into the far future; it poses a risk to environments and human health for periods which extend well beyond our comprehension. Radioactive waste is the Achilles heel of the industry,” says Blowers. Many people now doubt that a satisfactory final repository will ever be found. “Managing the nuclear legacy is not just a technical issue but a social one,” says Blowers. “The truth is that whatever efforts are made to bury and forget it, it will not go away. For the foreseeable future, the future is the safe and secure storage that is already in situ [at nuclear plants]. In the longer term better options may materialize.” “Given the time scales involved there is no need to hurry. Society can and should take its time dealing with its nuclear legacy,” he says.
Ensia 31st July 2019 read more »
Guardian 1st Aug 2019 read more »