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Sealing of a Deep Horizontal Borehole Repository for Nuclear Waste

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Mark Silverstone's picture
Principal JMP Services AS

30+ years in Oil & Gas Industry Field of Interest: Environmental issues in general; waste management issues in particular. 

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  • Mar 2, 2021
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Around the world, about 490,000 metric tons of radioactive spent fuel is temporarily stored in pools and dry casks above ground. No spent nuclear fuel anywhere in the world has yet been placed in a permanent repository.

Deep Isolation will emplace nuclear waste in corrosion-resistant canisters (typically 9 to 13 inches in diameter and 14 feet long) deep into horizontal drillholes, in rock that has been stable for tens to hundreds of millions of years.

Over the last few years, Deep Isolation has been working through the list of identified risks with this method of long term storage of high level nuclear waste. One such risk is that:

"...the isolation may be compromised by the borehole used to access the repository, as it could provide a direct fast-flow path transporting radionuclides from the disposal section to the accessible environment. Thus, backfilling the disposal section and sealing the access hole are considered essential engineered safety components."

Deep Isolation is planning a webinar to discuss this issue and how they are planning to resolve it. Please register here and use the opportunity to ask questions about their concept.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 2, 2021

Mark, Deep Isolation's concept is a non-starter.

There's a reason spent nuclear fuel, except that used for defense purposes, isn't buried in deep holes: it's too valuable.

When fuel rods are replaced every ~18 months, only 5% of the U-235 in them has been depleted - there's way too much clean energy left over to waste. Roger Blomquist, Director of Nuclear Outreach at Argonne National Laboratory, estimates the spent fuel stored at a typical nuclear plant, if recycled, could power the plant for 900 years.

One possibility would be digging deep holes anyway, then making a big show out of pouring a little "waste" (concrete) in them to help anti-nuclear activists sleep at night. It wouldn't be any safer, but wouldn't be any more dangerous, either.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Mar 3, 2021

Can the waste be retrieved?

Yes. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires waste to be retrievable for a period of time. The drilling industry regularly retrieves objects and monitoring instruments from drillholes, and the process is standard. For a Deep Isolation sealed drillhole, an expert crew could still retrieve the waste, but it would take a week or possibly longer. Doing so is sufficiently complex to offer substantial security from a terrorist attempt to retrieve the waste. We have already demonstrated the canisters can be retrieved.

https://www.deepisolation.com/faqs/

I am not a shareholder. Wouldn´t you like to ask them yourself? Sign up for the webinar. At least give it some thought.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 3, 2021

Deep isolation was one option of many that was studied in the 1980s, and rejected in favor of a national spent fuel repository. A repository with fuel stored on underground rail cars was judged to be at least as safe, and retrieval of fuel to be more cost-effective.

From the company's website:

"Deep Isolation will emplace nuclear waste in corrosion-resistant canisters (typically 9 to 13 inches in diameter and 14 feet long) deep into horizontal drillholes, in rock that has been stable for tens to hundreds of millions of years..."

If the people behind Deep Isolation had any understanding of radation or nuclear energy, they would know storing spent fuel for "tens to hundreds of million of years" grossly exaggerates its danger.

Because the most radioactive isotopes in spent fuel decay the fastest, the most radioactive, deadly nuclear waste today will be harmless in 1,500 years - no more radioactive than the ground we walk upon every day.

If they had consulted a materials engineer, they would know a material that's "corrosion-resistant" for hundreds of millions of years doesn't exist.

The risks of spent fuel storage, even above ground in dry casks, pale in comparison to the risks of unchecked climate change. If we don't address climate change immediately it's unlikely humans will exist 500 years from now, much less 1,500.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Mar 4, 2021

Really, the author needs to move on from what "was studied in the 1980s". Even a casual examination of the work done in the last few years by Deep Isolation and the expertise they have gathered may convince you that the subject matter has, to say the least, developed a bit in the last 40 years, well beyond that which was possible in those days.

But, as usual, the "Nothing but Nuclear" advocate refuses to seek any information beyond what he thinks he already knows from the "good ol´ days."

At Deep Isolation, they are under no illusion regarding the casks and how long they will last. Rather, it appears that they depend on the casks mainly to convey the material to the deep geological site. But, don´t take my word for it. Why not ask them?

A deep horizontal drill hole repository for high-level radioactive waste takes advantage of the exceptional isolation properties of geologic formations whose stability has endured for a million years or more.

Deep disposal would also be far below aquifers, in a region in which water has had no contact with the surface for a million years or more.

Deep, stable rock formations thousands of feet underground provide:

A billion tons of rock between the waste and the surface.

Extremely long time for waste to diffuse to the surface, even if it penetrates the engineered barriers, allows most radioisotopes time to decay naturally.

But, worst of all, he continues to spread misinformation about the hazards of nuclear fuel waste.   I can only conclude that he is incapable or unwilling to understand.   The simple truth is, according to the NRC:

"High-level wastes are hazardous because they produce fatal radiation doses during short periods of direct exposure."

"...heavier-than-uranium, or "transuranic," elements do not produce nearly the amount of heat or penetrating radiation that fission products do, but they take much longer to decay. Transuranic wastes, sometimes called TRU, account for most of the radioactive hazard remaining in high-level waste after 1,000 years.

Radioactive isotopes eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years."

Regarding the length of time that the waste is lethal, Scientific American says about the planned isolation project in New Mexico:

"Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) outside Carlsbad, N.M. Paired with 48 stone or concrete 105-ton markers, etched with warnings in seven languages ranging from English to Navajo as well as human faces contorted into expressions of horror, the massive installation is meant to stand for at least 10,000 years—twice as long as the Egyptian pyramids have survived.

But the plutonium ensconced in the salt mine at the center of this installation will be lethal to humans for at least 25 times that long—even once the salt walls ooze inward to entomb the legacy of American atomic weapons."

Deep Isolation is the only available possibly workable solution at the moment.  They still have a way to go before it can be said that they have satisfied the risk criteria required.

But, perhaps their biggest challenge is to deal with the "authorities" who 1) refuse to believe that nuclear waste is problematic 2) refuse to be informed about possible 21st century solutions.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 4, 2021

Mark, you've managed to assemble an impressive but woefully-deficient antinuclear narrative from the bits and pieces about radiation you do understand. Let me help you sort it out:

"A deep horizontal drill hole repository for high-level radioactive waste takes advantage of the exceptional isolation properties of geologic formations whose stability has endured for a million years or more blah blah blah...even if it penetrates the engineered barriers, allows most radioisotopes time to decay naturally.'

21st-Century Sales BS, crafted to convince anti-nuclear activists their expensive, useless product is necessary by scaring them. Apparently effective, however.

"The simple truth is, according to the NRC..."

Wonderful, a reputable source. Let's see how NRC's simple truth has been mangled.

"...heavier-than-uranium, or "transuranic," elements do not produce nearly the amount of heat or penetrating radiation that fission products do..."

In attempting to reach a general audience NRC has oversimplified. Fission products include radioactive isotopes of transuranic elements - ones that produce plenty of heat and penetrating radiation, and are plenty dangerous. But

"Berkelium (element 97), einsteinium (element 99), fermium, mendelevium, nobelium, and lawrencium are produced in such small amounts, mostly for research purposes; and most of the isotopes produced have such short half-lives, a few seconds or minutes, that they are an unlikely health concern. -

Regarding:

"Transuranic wastes, sometimes called TRU, account for most of the radioactive hazard remaining in high-level waste after 1,000 years."

The radioactive hazard from TRU, after 1,500 years, is negligible. The most radioactive isotopes are the ones that decay the fastest (after 1,000 years, there are virtually none of them left).

What's  "high-level waste" in 2021 isn't in 3021.

"Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years."

Fact: plutonium-239, the core of a bomb that destroyed Nagasaki and killed over 60,000 people, that has a half-life of 24,000 years, is safe enough to hold in your hands.

Your quote from Scientific American is unworthy of a response. SA is reasonably adept at making Americans feel they can become Scientific by glossing over a free web article. But as we've seen, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Mar 3, 2021

Mark, storing deadly Nuclear waste in deep seas under water could release some of the radiation into fish and sea growth that is used by many people for their daily diets. There is no safe place for Nuclear waste. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 3, 2021

Jim, alpha, beta, and gamma radiation from spent nuclear fuel is not something that collects in fish. Radioactive isotopes that decay and release that radiation, however, can and do collect in fish. Fortunately, the most radioactive of them are extremely heavy and sink to the bottom of the ocean faster than a rock.

No doubt some of the spent fuel from the 9 nuclear submarines that have sunk in the ocean have ended up in fish. The effect on humans has been inconsequential, however, compared to radiation from isotopes released during open-air atomic testing in the 1950s and 1960s, which far exceeds any leftover radiation from Chernobyl or Fukushima.

In the U.S., radiation from atomic testing is far exceeded by that from radon gas. The second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, radon is responsible for 21,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. If you want to worry about radiation, have your home checked for radon. Other sources of radiation - from nuclear energy plants, nuclear waste, Hanford, Chernobyl, or Fukushima - are only food for hypochondriacs.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Mar 4, 2021

According to the EPA:

Exposure to low-levels of radiation does not cause immediate health effects, but can cause a small increase in the risk of cancer over a lifetime. There are studies that keep track of groups of people who have been exposed to radiation, including atomic bomb survivors and radiation industry workers. These studies show that radiation exposure increases the chance of getting cancer, and the risk increases as the dose increases: the higher the dose, the greater the risk.

Risks that are low for an individual could still result in unacceptable numbers of additional cancers in a large population over time. For example, in a population of one million people, an average one-percent increase in lifetime cancer risk for individuals could result in 10,000 additional cancers. The EPA sets regulatory limits and recommends emergency response guidelines well below 100 millisieverts (10 rem) to protect the U.S. population, including sensitive groups such as children, from increased cancer risks from accumulated radiation dose over a lifetime.

Really, "inconsequential"?  It is not inconsequential to those who are affected.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 5, 2021

Question: On August 7, 1945, >80,000 residents of Hiroshima, Japan were killed by fires and radiation from an atomic bomb blast. Highly radioactive fallout fell on the city for days afterwards.

Only 76 years later, the city is a bustling metrolpolis of 1.3 million people. Either residents of Hiroshima are (choose one):
a) Insane
b) Terrified
c) Aware highly radioactive substances don't remain dangerous for "tens or hundreds of millions of years"

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Mar 5, 2021

Honestly, one would think that you don´t yet know about Google.  Try Googling “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Long Term Health Effects"  A few excerpts from the very first result of the search (bold by me):

"Following a nuclear explosion, there are two forms of residual radioactivity. The first is the fallout of the nuclear material and fission products. Most of this was dispersed in the atmosphere or blown away by the wind."

"The other form of radiation is neutron activation. Neutrons can cause non-radioactive materials to become radioactive when caught by atomic nuclei. However, since the bombs were detonated so far above the ground, there was very little contamination—especially in contrast to nuclear test sites such as those in Nevada."

Another report says this:

"Relatively few survivors beyond 2,000 m from the hypocenter were exposed to radiation from the bombs; the mortality within the 2,000-m zone was high."

I think the answer to your question is crystal clear.    We are not so lucky with nuclear waste. It is in our backyards. And there is a lot more of it than exploded over Japan. Even still, at least two generations of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were severely affected by radiation.  We are just now learning about the epigenetic effects of the radiation.  No doubt there will be reports on the grandchildren of the survivors. 

As for Deep Isolation, there is still a way to go before it can be determined if theirs is a practical solution.   At the very least, it has to be determined if it is cheaper than the billions of dollars per year now being spent to store the material.  Also, there are risks, however, that remain, e.g. it is inevitable that problems will occur in the process of placing the material.  It might be difficult to plan effective remedies for damaged casing, stuck tubulars, etc., especially in highly deviated wells.

And FYI, the Japanese are, indeed, still frightened of the continuing effects of the bombs.

"And for all survivors, cancers related to radiation exposure still continue to increase throughout their lifespan, even to this day, seven decades later."

You should know better. At least I hope you do now.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 6, 2021

"Wee are not so lucky with nuclear waste. It is in our backyards. And there is a lot more of it than exploded over Japan."

You have no idea how much radiation is in my backyard, so I'll tell you: it's very close to .15 μSv/hr (microsieverts/hour). None of it, repeat none, comes from "nuclear waste."

Yours is probably about the same. If you have a dosimeter, you can check it. Do you?

"We are just now learning about the epigenetic effects of the radiation.  No doubt there will be reports on the grandchildren of the survivors."

Without any evidence thereof, your horrors are 100% imaginary.

There was a higher incidence of cancer in the years following the bomb, but survivors within the blast zone were exposed to millions of times more radiation than you'll ever be exposed to in your life.

Yet not a single person, plant, or animal has been harmed by waste from a nuclear power plant. Ever. Until you can show us evidence to the contrary, please don't waste our time.

 

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Mar 8, 2021

You seem to suggest that high level nuclear waste is just not a problem, not even hazardous.  While I think it is highly irresponsible, I cannot let the suggestion stand.  So, I´ll go back to basics with this article (my bold):

These delayed energetic emissions mean that nuclear waste is highly radioactive. When it first comes out of the reactor, it is so hazardous that if you stood close to it while it was unshielded, you would receive a lethal radiation dose within a few seconds and would die of acute radiation sickness within a few days. As the energy emerges, the waste becomes less radioactive (and so also less hazardous) every moment. Still, it does not transform from hazardous to benign for thousands of years.

Deep Isolation offers a possible solution and one that seems to be getting international traction such as in this OECD report:

In commercial nuclear energy, all SNF/HLW arises from the use of metal-clad ceramic fuel that is used in the reactor core of nuclear power plants. This fuel maintains its essential physical configuration, but once used in a reactor, becomes highly radioactive. While most of the radioactivity decays away after a few hundreds of years certain long-lived radionuclides will persist for thousands of years.

The international scientific consensus that DGRs (Deep Geological Repository) are the best technology for the disposal of these materials is based on a safety approach that differs from the safety approaches for other nuclear facilities. The difference in approach is due to the need to provide safety long after operations have ceased after all the waste has been emplaced and the facility closed (often referred to as the post-closure period). The post-closure period of DGR considers the hazards associated with the long-lived radionuclides that will persist for thousands of years. A DGR is designed to contain nuclear waste several hundred metres or more below the surface, in a stable geological site (such as granite clay or salt formations) that isolates the waste from the biosphere, thus preventing contact with humans and the environment. These facilities rely upon well-known natural laws and layers of defence-in-depth to maintain safety. The document describes the worldwide consensus approach for the safe disposal of SNF and HLW in a DGR that has been cautiously developed and guided by decades of scientific investigation and analysis.

You do the nuclear industry no favors by the "see no evil" approach to nuclear waste. There may well be a solution to the massive amounts of high level nuclear fuel waste that is presently in surface storage.  Until there is a solution, sales pitches for nuclear power will be fatally flawed. No amount of denial of the problem will fool most people. We will all be poorer for it.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 11, 2021

From you own source, Mark:

"Like every other energy source, nuclear power has both good aspects and bad. However, its ability to responsibly produce global-scale, 24/7, (nearly) carbon-free energy is unmatched among known technologies. Nuclear waste needs political will to be dealt with, but there are safe ways to dispose of it. As for reactor safety, while the accidents that have occurred are high profile and memorable, the actual risk to public health is very small compared to most of the alternatives."

Sorry, but you've wasted enough of my time. Have a nice day.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Mar 5, 2021

Jim - There is no proposal to store nuclear waste in deep seas. The proposal is this:

"Deep Isolation will emplace nuclear waste in corrosion-resistant canisters (typically 9 to 13 inches in diameter and 14 feet long) deep into horizontal drillholes, in rock that has been stable for tens to hundreds of millions of years..."

Please have a look at their website for more information.

But, you are correct that  "There is no safe place for Nuclear waste." There is only the least hazardous. This may be it for the 460,000 tons we have. 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Mar 8, 2021

The amount of U235 in the spent fuel is quite small and more trouble than it’s worth. The plutonium in the spent fuel is the material some believe should be recycled.That requires reprocessing the fuel and that is stunningly expensive - typical reprocessing plant costs about 30 billion dollars. Additionally, the plutonium can be used for nuclear weapons. Further, reprocessing spent fuel creates a lot of radioactive waste.

Much more cost effective to simply employ a once thru fuel cycle where all the radioactive material is buried after the fuel is used once. The Deep Isolation’s approach is both cost effective and technically sound. Since horizontal drilling is used, the buried material will not migrate to the surface.

 

P.S. Plutonium is created in a reactor from uranium 238 which is makes up about 95% of the uranium in the core. Plutonium can be relatively easily chemically separated from the spent fu

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