Nuclear waste disposal drilled deep into earth’s crust

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Preface. I suspect one the greatest tragedies of the decline of oil will be all the nuclear waste left for thousands of low-tech generations in the future. We owe it to them to clean up our mess while we still have excess oil energy to do it.  But far more likely nuclear wastewill sit at nuclear reactors, military sites, and wherever nuclear warheads are kept, shortening the lives of anyone who lives near them.

There are two articles below about possible ways to dispose of nuclear waste into deep holes that sound good to me.

Related: Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste by William M. Alley & Rosemarie Alley. 2013. Cambridge University Press to understand how serious the problem is.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Vidal, J. 2019. What should we do with nuclear waste? Ensia.

Richard Muller, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley and his daughter, co-founder of company  Deep Isolation gave a demonstration in January 2019 of how nuclear waste could be buried permanently using oil-fracking technology. A 140 pound steel canister (with no radioactive waste) was placed in a previously drilled borehole deep into the ground.

With this technique, there’s no need to excavate expensive tunnels. The Mullers think with larger canisters pushed through 300 boreholes up to two miles deep under a billion tons of rock where radiation can’t possibly leak out.  This method could store most of the US’s highest level nuclear waste permanently  for a third of what storage methods cost now.

Many ideas have been investigated, but most have been rejected as impractical, too expensive or ecologically unacceptable. They include shooting it into spaceisolating it in synthetic rockburying it in ice sheetsdumping it on the world’s most isolated islands; and dropping it to the bottom of the world’s deepest oceanic trenches.

Vertical boreholes up to 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) deep have also been proposed (see next article), and this option is said by some scientists to be promising. But there have been doubts because it is likely to be near impossible to retrieve waste from vertical boreholes.

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.

By law, however, all high-level U.S. nuclear waste must go to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, since 1987 the designated deep geological repository about 90 miles (140 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas. But the site has been met with continued legal, regulatory and constitutional challenges, becoming a political yo-yo since it was identified as a potentially suitable repository. It is fiercely opposed by the Western Shoshone peoples, Nevada state and others.

A massive tunnel was excavated in Yucca Mountain but was never licensed and the site is now largely abandoned — to the frustration of the federal government and the nuclear industry, which has raised more than US$41 billion from a levy on consumer bills to pay for the repository and which must pay for heavy security at their temporary nuclear waste storage sites.

“We need a high-level repository. We are holding waste now at about 121 sites across the U.S.,” says Baker Elmore, director of federal programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute. “This costs the taxpayer US$800 million a year. We have 97 [nuclear] plants operating and the amount of waste is only going to grow. We are not allowing the science to play out here. There is US$41 billion in the government’s nuclear waste fund, and Yucca mountain is scientifically sound. We want a decision. We are going to need more than one repository.”

Cornwall, W. July 10, 2015. Deep Sleep. Boreholes drilled into Earth’s crust get a fresh look for nuclear waste disposal. Science Vol. 349: 132-135 

One of the world’s biggest radioactive headaches sits in an aging cinderblock building in the desert near Hanford, Washington, at the bottom of a pool of water that glows with an eerie blue light. The nearly 2000 half-meter-long steel cylinders are filled with highly radioactive cesium and strontium, leftover from making plutonium for nuclear weapons. The waste has been described as the most lethal single source of radiation in the United States, after the core of an active nuclear reactor. It could cause a catastrophe if the pool were breached by an unexpectedly severe earthquake, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the waste’s owner.

For decades, the federal government has been floundering over what to do with the cylinders. They’re too hot to be easily housed with other waste. And the government’s quest to create a single permanent burial ground for all the nation’s high-level nuclear waste, from both military and civilian activities, is in disarray. U.S. high-level nuclear waste:

70,000 metric tons of civilian waste stored at 75 sites
13,000 metric tons of military waste stored at  5 sites

Now, a deceptively simple-sounding solution is emerging: Stick the cylinders in a very deep hole. The approach, known as deep borehole disposal, involves punching a 43-centimeter-wide hole 5 kilometers into hard rock in Earth’s crust. Engineers would then fill the deepest 2 kilometers with waste canisters, plug up the rest with concrete and clay, and leave the waste to quietly decay.

The idea has been around for decades, but not long ago scientists had all but abandoned it. Over the past 5 years, however, as improved drilling technologies converged with the political and technical woes bedeviling other nuclear waste solutions, boreholes have regained their allure. DOE has gone from spending almost nothing on borehole research to planning a full-scale field test, costing at least $80 million. And earlier this year U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz gave boreholes a dash of publicity during a major speech, mentioning them as a promising way to deal with the cesium and strontium waste at DOE’s Hanford Site nuclear complex.

Boreholes have “been plan B and just missed the boat for years,” says nuclear engineer Michael Driscoll, a retired professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and one of the concept’s leading advocates. “Maybe now is the time.

Many nuclear waste veterans, however, are skeptical. The technical challenges are daunting, they argue, and boreholes won’t end political opposition to building new nuclear waste facilities. “The borehole thing to me is a red herring,” says attorney Geoff Fettus of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington, D.C., which supports underground disposal in a shallower mine, but has sued DOE over now abandoned plans to bury the waste inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

Still, even some doubters say that given the current deadlock over nuclear waste, boreholes deserve a second look, at least for those troublesome cylinders at Hanford.

“If we can move forward with disposing of some of the DOE waste, that’s a good thing,” says geoscientist Allison Macfarlane, director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and a former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We have to make some progress somewhere.

IF ONE PERSON deserves credit for helping revive U.S. borehole research, it’s Driscoll, the retired MIT engineer. Now 80, he has spent more than 25 years quietly exploring the potential for depositing radioactive waste deep in granite bedrock.

Driscoll wasn’t the first to pursue the idea; since the 1950s, boreholes have vied with other nuclear waste disposal options, ranging from the improbable (shoot it into outer space or melt it into an ice sheet) to the mundane (stash it in a shallow mine). Ironically, by the time Driscoll got interested in boreholes, U.S. policymakers thought they had settled the issue. In 1987, after years of fierce debate, Congress approved legislation creating a national repository for high-level nuclear waste in a mine carved into Yucca Mountain, roughly 110 kilometers northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. With that decision, U.S. funding for borehole research largely evaporated.

Driscoll wasn’t deterred. Boreholes, he thought, had some potential advantages over a single big facility. For example, they could spread the burden of storing waste that no one wanted, because suitable rock is found across the United States. So even as engineers began to plan the Yucca Mountain repository, Driscoll and a handful of graduate students kept churning out papers delving into borehole costs and technical feasibility.

In one scenario they explored, spent fuel rods are placed in slender canisters that are strung together like sausage links, then lowered into the hole. Even very radioactive material would be safe, advocates say, if placed in the right kind of deep rock: ancient crystalline granite with few cracks that might allow radioactive materials to seep into groundwater or reach the surface. The surrounding rock and the salty water would dissipate heat generated by the waste. And the top 3 kilometers of each hole would be plugged with a layer cake of cement, gravel, and bentonite clay, which swells when wet. The nation’s entire cache of high-level waste could fit into 700 to 950 boreholes, at a cost of $40 million per hole (not counting transportation), according to recent estimates by scientists at DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who have worked with Driscoll.

Boreholes got their first big break in 2010, when the Obama administration announced that it was abandoning Yucca Mountain after years of delays and resistance from state politicians. The government began looking for other options. That year, Sandia made its first big investment: $734,000 to study how fluid and radioactive particles might behave in a borehole, and how best to seal it. In 2012, a presidential commission added its recommendation for more studies.

Soon after, Moniz became energy secretary. Moniz, a former colleague of Driscoll’s at MIT, had already heard his sales pitch about boreholes. In 2003, the two men served together on a study panel that endorsed “aggressively” studying the technology.

This past March, a White House policy shift opened the door further. Moniz announced that the Obama administration would abandon previous plans to put all high-level waste in one spot and instead would seek separate sites for disposing of commercial nuclear waste—about 85% of the total—and military waste. Moniz called some of the defense waste, including Hanford’s radioactive cylinders, “ideal candidates for deep borehole disposal.

CESIUM-137 AND STRONTIUM-90 are the hot potatoes of the nuclear waste world, packing a powerful radioactive punch in a relatively short half-life of 30 years. At Hanford, there’s barely enough to fill the back of a pickup truck. Yet it contains more than 100 million curies of radiation, roughly one-tenth the radiation in the core of a large nuclear reactor. And it produces enough heat to power more than 200 homes.
To prevent the tubes from causing trouble, they sit under about 4 meters of water in what resembles a giant swimming pool, emanating a blue glow known as Cherenkov radiation as high-energy particles slam into the water. The 1974 building housing the pool is past its 30-year life span, according to DOE’s inspector general. Bombarded by radiation, the pool’s concrete walls are significantly weakened in places. Some of the tubes have failed and been stuck inside larger containers. In a review of DOE facilities conducted after the 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the department’s Office of Environmental Management concluded that the Hanford pool had the highest risk of catastrophic failure of any DOE facility, for example in a massive earthquake, according to a report from the department’s inspector general. DOE says it plans to move the pool waste into dry casks for safer storage, but it hasn’t said when.

“It’s an urgent situation and a huge safety risk,” says Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge in Seattle, Washington, which has been critical of DOE’s efforts to secure the waste.

Borehole advocates point out that the Hanford tubes are less than 7 centimeters in diameter, narrow enough to fit down a hole without extensive repackaging. All could fit into a single shaft. Other military waste could also go down a borehole, advocates add. One candidate is plutonium that DOE has extracted from dismantled nuclear weapons. Most of it is currently stored as softball-sized metal spheres at a DOE facility in Texas. In contrast to Hanford’s cesium and strontium, the plutonium is fairly cool, but extremely long-lived, with a half-life of 24,000 years. DOE is considering other options for the plutonium, including turning it into fuel for nuclear reactors or combining it with other nuclear waste and burying it. But boreholes could be an effective way to put it far out of the reach of anyone trying to lay their hands on bombmaking material.

Yet borehole disposal is not as straightforward as it might seem. The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, an independent panel that advises DOE, notes a litany of potential problems: No one has drilled holes this big 5 kilometers into solid rock. If a hole isn’t smooth and straight, a liner could be hard to install, and waste containers could get stuck. It’s tricky to see flaws like fractures in rock 5 kilometers down. Once waste is buried, it would be hard to get it back (an option federal regulations now require). And methods for plugging the holes haven’t been sufficiently tested. “These are all pretty daunting technical challenges,” says the board’s chair, geologist Rod Ewing, of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Even if those technical problems are surmounted, boreholes might solve only a fraction of the nation’s waste problem. That’s because much of the high-level waste simply wouldn’t fit down a hole without extensive repackaging. “Due to the physical dimensions of much of the used nuclear fuel, it is not presently considered to be as good of a candidate [for borehole disposal] as the smaller waste forms,” said William Boyle, director of DOE’s Office of Used Nuclear Fuel Disposition Research and Development, in a statement to Science. Spent fuel rods from commercial power reactors, for instance, are often bundled into casks that are about 2 meters across.

Then there’s the same problem that dogged Yucca Mountain: the politics of finding a place to drill the holes. “Let’s just assume [boreholes] could work better than anybody ever imagined,” says Fettus, the NRDC attorney. “You still wouldn’t solve the nut that everyone has been unable to solve”: persuading state and local governments to take on waste from across the nation.

DESPITE THESE CHALLENGES, Sandia scientists are moving forward with a 5-year plan to drill one or more 5-kilometer-deep boreholes. Pat Brady, a Sandia geochemist helping plan the tests, is optimistic. “There’s a lot of institutional experience with drilling holes in the ground,” he says.

The drilling technology is better than ever, he says. Drillers have gained valuable experience boring deep holes into hard rock for geothermal energy, and improved rigs can more easily and accurately drill deep, straight holes. The Sandia team is currently looking for a U.S. site for the first test hole, with a plan to start drilling in the fall of 2016.

Besides seeing if they can cost-effectively drill a hole that’s deep and wide enough, they also want to test methods for determining whether the rock is solid and whether any water near the bottom of the hole is connected to shallow groundwater. Then they will lower a model waste canister down the hole to see if it gets stuck.

Other nations with nuclear waste, including China, are watching. But, for now, the United States is the only country getting ready to drill. “Nobody else has stepped forward,” says Geoff Freeze, a nuclear engineer at Sandia who is overseeing the U.S. experiment. “It kind of fell to us.”

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17 Responses to Nuclear waste disposal drilled deep into earth’s crust

  1. DurangoKid says:

    My question is about the alpha decay that liberates helium. Can this gas be contained? If not, will the radioactive materials follow it as it leaks off?

    • energyskeptic says:

      I seriously doubt that anything would leak to the surface buried that deeply, and anything that did would be trivial compared to the 70,000 tons of toxic waste that can last tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years on the surface if not buried.

  2. Ken Barrows says:

    And the question is, what’s the net energy? Is Bill Gates working on that?

    • NJF says:

      Like every nuclear plant, extraordinarily high net energy. Nuclear doesn’t suffer from the same EROI concerns as other zero-carbon sources.

      It’s just that the mining requires oil, not nuclear power. If nuclear could turn around and mine more nuclear easily it would be a different story.

      It’s really a shame we haven’t found a better fission reactor. More likely due to the NRC than anything technical. The average nuclear plant is almost 40 and they’re all once-through burner designs which are obscenely wasteful. The vast majority of nuclear waste is just unused irradiated uranium 238.

      • Ken Barrows says:

        The whole process. I am aware that uranium is dense like no other. Ultimately, can nuclear exist without fossil fuels.

    • Ken Barrows says:

      Seawater extraction of uranium is net energy positive? Looking forward to your link

      • PC says:

        However, Ken, there is 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium in the US as a byproduct of uranium enrichment. This can also be used as fuel before the uranium extracted from seawater. There is an estimated 4.5 billion metric tons of uranium in the oceans. It is in a steady state which means that as it is extracted it is replenished from the earth’s crust.

        • energyskeptic says:

          PC, there simply isn’t enough energy to extract uranium. See this post: http://energyskeptic.com/2017/minerals-energy-from-ugo-bardis-extraction/
          of Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.
          The problems with extracting minerals from seawater are twofold: the limited amounts available and the energy requirement. Calculations of these parameters are not encouraging. 26 The oceans are vast, but rare metals are dissolved in them in extremely tiny amounts. In the case of copper, for instance, there is about 1 billion tons of it in the form of copper ions dissolved in the whole mass of seawater on the Earth. 27 That may seem to be a large amount, but consider that we now produce about 15 million tons of copper every year. Even if we were able to filter the whole mass of all the oceans—an unlikely prospect (also very bad from the viewpoint of fish, whales, and all other sea creatures)—we would run out of oceanic copper in little more than 60 years.

          Extracting ions dissolved in water doesn’t require the energy-expensive process of rock breaking, lifting, and crushing of conventional mining. However, the concentrations of rare metal ions in seawater are enormously smaller than they are in mineral ores. So extracting a specific ion from seawater requires filtering enormously large amounts of water. That is not just a practical problem; it takes energy to pump water through a filtering membrane or, alternatively, for all the operations needed to transport the membrane to sea, leaving sea currents to move water in and out, and then to recover it.

          Uranium extraction from seawater is still discussed as a future possibility. However, it is possible to calculate that the energy needed to extract and process uranium from seawater would be about the same as the energy that could be obtained by the same uranium using the current nuclear technology. 31 That, of course, would make extraction from seawater useless.

          • PC says:

            Ken, I tried to put links in my comment on uranium extraction from seawater but they weren’t posted. I read your link and it is very good. I would disagree with a couple of points. Extraction of uranium is performed by treated fibers put in the ocean and depending on currents to supply flow. The fibers are harvested, processed to recover the uranium, then reused. From what I have read there is an equilibrium whereby when uranium is harvested more comes into solution from the adjacent crust. Also, if all of the uranium U235 and U238 are used as fuel in Gen 4 reactors the net energy would likely be very positive. On a different note the government has 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium (byproducts of uranium enrichment) that can be used in generation 4 reactors so there probably wont be a need for seawater uranium for a long time. Similarly we have a huge store of thorium which also can be used in gen 4 reactors. By the time we need seawater uranium we likely will have fusion energy.

          • energyskeptic says:

            Please provide references from scientific journals to back thisup

  3. Rice Farmer says:

    Alice is right: something needs to be done immediately. Once power grids go down, nuclear power plants, spent fuel pools, and other facilities lose offsite power. After that, it’s just a short countdown until the nuclear time bombs start going off. There is virtually no place to hide.

    • Ken Barrows says:

      PC,

      Do you understand systems thinking and the concept of net energy? I think what you’re saying is that nuclear, at every stage of the process, can be run by electricity, including fabrication. But you make a conclusory statement and don’t give me any idea on how all-electric nuclear will happen. It’s okay, though. I haven’t seen anyone else do it, either. A process that includes very high temperatures needs fossil fuels at some point. Why isn’t that so?

      • PC says:

        Ken, Some of my comments are not showing anymore. Generation 4 fission energy generates temperatures around 900 degrees centigrade. With that kind of heat a number of synthetic processes are possible and efficient, including synthesis of hydrogen from water, ammonia from nitrogen for fertilizer, hydrocarbons (including alcohols, gasoline, natural gas, and jet fuel) from CO2. Desalinization of ocean water becomes a highly efficient process. Deserts can bloom. It is then theoretically possible that all fuels and electricity needed to build power plants (including fission, wind, solar) will be available.

  4. Cynic says:

    Who said that our civilisation will do nothing at all for future generations?

    Really, one despairs…..

  5. Fred Justesen says:

    With the collapse of industrial civilization who is going to decommission all of the operating nuclear power plants that are scattered around the globe?
    Maybe Guy McPherson is right after all!

  6. PC says:

    I totally agree that thorium molten salt technology will be a great step forward and will allow for process heat synthesis. However a fast spectrum reactor wont have to deal with graphite moderator which means it should be simpler in design and have a longer lifetime. Thats just my opinion from what Ive read. It also should be our goal to deal with spent fuel with either a uranium or thorium reactor.

    • Mark says:

      Thorium in many ways is even worse than the existing reactors (there are several articles on this site that explain why it’s more radioactive and riskier for weapons proliferation).

      Spent is a misleading term. “Highly irradiated” fuel that is insanely radioactive after use is closer to the truth.