Preface. One the greatest tragedies of the decline of oil will be all the nuclear waste left to harm future generations for up to a million years. We owe it to them to clean up our mess while we still have the fossil energy to do it, they won’t be able to discard the waste with horses and biomass-based energy like the civilizations before fossils that we’re returning to. If we don’t do anything, nuclear waste will sit at reactors, military and nuclear warhead sites.
The first of three articles below criticizes the deep borehole method of disposal that follow. I disagree. There are groups opposed to moving nuclear waste to a faraway site in case the train goes off the rails or there is a truck accident making it hard to use any repository anywhere. Drilling a borehole onsite gets around that. It is also much easier, faster, and far cheaper than new tunnel sites like Yucca mountain, which has cost $15 billion so far. Of course there are issues with boreholes, but no showstoppers. It is simply politically impossible to build large repositories. Nevada is one of the least populated states and it couldn’t be done there. The perfect is the enemy of the good, so I vote boreholes. Equally good, reopen Yucca Mountain, which the book “Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste” shows is a perfectly fine place– thousands of combinations of scenarios of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, high rainfall, and other hazards have been modeled and nothing released the wastes below.
Related: posts on nuclear waste, especially “A Nuclear spent fuel fire at Peach Bottom in Pennsylvania could force 18 million people to evacuate”
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
Krall, L. 2020. Nuclear waste disposal: Why the case for deep boreholes is … full of holes. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
This article links to a host of alternative disposal methods for nuclear waste here.
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.
A supposedly irrefutable safety case accompanies these seemingly excellent financials. Unlike the Yucca Mountain repository, boreholes would be sited below the water table, at depths ranging from 600 meters to 2 kilometers, in sedimentary rock formations. The disposal zone would consist of or be overlain by shale rock formations, which contain ductile clay minerals that can heal any fractures that would otherwise facilitate the flow of water—a potential hazard—to and away from the waste. Simple tests, such as analyses of natural chlorine isotopes, show that the water in these formations is millions of years old. This, Deep Isolation hopes, will convince stakeholders that the system is impenetrable, with negligible risk for contamination of nearby aquifers.
The Energy Department had concluded in the 1980s that disposal of spent nuclear fuel in boreholes drilled to depths of roughly 10 kilometers was not an attractive alternative to mined repositories. In the years following, the US Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and waste management organizations of Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Canada reviewed concepts for shallower boreholes, with waste emplaced at depths ranging between 3 kilometers and 5 kilometers. Similar to the Energy Department study, these reviews concluded that borehole disposal would require decades of research, design, and development, which—even if successful—did not promise safety margins superior to a well-sited, deep-mined repository. A more recent study that several colleagues and I authored found that Deep Isolation’s even shallower boreholes, at depths of around 2 kilometers or less, would be plagued by the same problems and that suitable borehole disposal sites are, in fact, geographically scarce.
Many challenges to the viability of borehole disposal stem from the limit that modern drilling techniques impose on borehole diameters. Although the precise borehole geometry is dependent on location-specific geologic variables, deeper boreholes generally necessitate smaller diameters. Such a limitation has implications both in terms of the barrier system that surrounds the nuclear fuel and in terms of the ability to fully characterize the geology of the disposal site.
To accommodate canisters whose diagonal cross-section has a length of 30 centimeters, the diameter of Deep Isolation’s curving boreholes must be larger than 40 centimeters. Since this exceeds the 22-centimeter standard for oil and gas extraction, the technical feasibility of Deep Isolation’s drilling scheme remains unclear. But if it is feasible, then a 40-centimeter diameter borehole would restrict the thickness of the canister walls to about one centimeter. As compared to deep-mined repositories, which could accept canisters with walls thicker than 5 centimeters, thin-walled canisters will have adverse safety consequences for the workers who will load the waste into the boreholes. Therefore, potential worker exposures to and environmental releases of radioactivity during canister loading warrants careful consideration. My question: what about a robotic device?
Lowering hundreds of thousands of flimsy canisters into hundreds of narrow boreholes in a safe, timely fashion will be tricky, to say the least. If a canister is punctured or becomes stuck during this phase, then the risk to operators and the environment could be high.
Whereas mined repository designs incorporate a series of engineered and natural barriers to delay or preclude the release of radionuclides into the groundwater system and into the biosphere, borehole disposal relies entirely on a geologic barrier. Hence, borehole developers must compile a safety case that convinces regulators and the general public that the geologic environment around their disposal sites can function on its own to sequester radionuclides over the 1 million-year regulatory period. This means that in-depth sampling and analysis will need to be performed at every disposal site, undercutting the idea that boreholes represent a modular, easily replicable solution.
Ironically, the concept that has been promised to liberate stakeholders of the upfront costs associated with these site investigations is destined to increase the complexity of these activities. Rather than one or a handful of disposal sites, hundreds of disposal boreholes must be investigated thoroughly. Then, stakeholders must reach a high level of certainty that the bedrock, alone, can compensate for a lean engineered barrier system.
In the end, then, a mined repository still may be the best answer. Technically viable and publicly accepted repository designs are successfully moving ahead in Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, France, Canada, and even China and Russia. Rather than committing, prematurely, to a single site (Yucca Mountain) or chasing after nonviable “alternative solutions,” the United States would be wise to scale one or more of these internationally pioneered designs to accommodate the world’s largest national spent fuel inventory.
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 gave a demonstration in 2019 of how nuclear waste could be buried permanently using oil-fracking technology by putting a 140 pound steel canister with no radioactive waste into a previously drilled borehole deep into the ground.
This is much cheaper than excavating expensive tunnels that could be up to two miles deep under a billion tons of rock radiation can’t possibly leak out of. Just 300 boreholes 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 space; isolating it in synthetic rock; burying it in ice sheets; dumping 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.
So far, no country has built 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.”