BRATTLEBORO — A California start-up company hopes to use technology from the oil drilling industry to solve the problem of the long-term storage of high-level radioactive nuclear waste, which remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years.
The company, Deep Isolation of Berkeley, Calif, gave a presentation recently to the federal nuclear waste policy committee of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel. Deep Isolation is proposing to drill mile-deep boreholes, and store the nuclear fuel in connected horizontal boreholes that could stretch for a mile or two.
Betsy Madru, a vice president for Deep Isolation, along with a Deep Isolation hydro-geologist, Stefan Finsterie, gave a virtual presentation to the committee and answered questions, dealing with possible impacts similar to the fracking industry, which has been faulted for creating small earthquakes during its high-pressure drilling.
Finsterie said Deep Isolation’s process would not involve high-pressure water like the fracking industry, he said.
Madru said the company was capitalizing on the long-established drilling technology from the oil industry.
All of the nuclear fuel used at Vermont Yankee during its more than 40 years of operation are stored at the Vernon site in large concrete and steel canisters. The plant ceased generating electricity in December 2014, and is currently undergoing demolition and cleanup by NorthStar Group Services, its current owner.
In the case of storing nuclear waste, a deep borehole would be drilled between several thousand feet to a couple of miles deep, below the existing aquifer, and then a horizontal hole would be drilled to actually store the canisters. The canisters would be stored end to end, she said, and could be retrieved, which is a federal requirement.
The company’s system is called “directional borehole drilling” and would involve a vertical borehole, and then a horizontal borehole to store the waste. The company says the waste wouldn’t be stored so deep that it would be affected by the earth’s natural heat and pressure.
According to the Deep Isolation website, the waste would have to be transferred from the already existing large steel and concrete canisters, or spent fuel pools in the case of still-operating reactors, into relatively small 18-inch canisters.
The boreholes could be drilled either on-site of the existing waste, such as at a nuclear reactor, or at a regional waste facility, where the waste would be transferred to the smaller casks.
Last month, the federal Department of Energy awarded a $3.6 million grant to Deep Isolation to develop “a universal waste disposal canister.”
The federal Department of Energy had made a formal appeal for solutions and locations for handling the country’s high-level radioactive waste, the vast majority of which comes from commercial nuclear reactors, either still operating or closed, as is the case with Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
The committee of the panel has been studying the issue of federal waste policy on behalf of the larger group.
The federal government had planned on building a federal depository for the country’s high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas. But President Barack Obama, responding to both political and scientific pressure, cut off funding for Yucca Mountain in 2010, and funding has not been restored.
Lissa Weinmann of Brattleboro, chairwoman of the committee and vice-chairwoman of the citizen panel, said the panel had invited Deep Isolation to address them and explain their proposals. Weinmann said her impression was that the bore hole technology would be better suited to new nuclear reactors, rather than existing facilities such as Vermont Yankee.
“The committee invited Deep Isolation to the meeting to learn more about their recent DOE grant and their vision for how it could help with the nuclear waste problem nationally,” Weinmann wrote in an email.
“I think what we took away was that Deep Isolation‘s plan is really more for to include a strategy for dealing with nuclear waste when new reactors are planned in the future,” she said.
“Having to take the spent fuel rods out of their current casks to replace them in another formation in order to be injected into these bore holes that they contemplate seems like it would be a very costly and time-consuming endeavor. But then again, so is every solution,” she said.
She said the committee would discuss scenarios for long-term storage of the nuclear waste currently stored in Vernon at the Vermont Yankee site at its next meeting May 23.
“If the casks are going to be there for another 50 to 100 years, what happens in terms of monitoring?” she asked, saying there were licensing and degradation problems with the current set up. “Who pays for what?” she said.
A thorough investigation of those kinds of issues is needed, she said.
“There is no plan in store and the waste might be there for a very long time,” she said.
The committee and area residents need to understand what may happen ahead of time, she said.