Jun 2, 2020

Ep 264: Elizabeth Muller - Co-Founder and CEO, Deep Isolation

Co-Founder and CEO
Deep Isolation
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Show notes

First steps and Berkeley Earth

0:25-4:18 (Liz describes her early career and the goals of Berkeley Earth, the non-profit research organization she was leading)

Q. How did you start?
A. Liz never had a clear path, she majored in math and literature, also during early career, she used many diverse possibilities, including some time spent in Europe. After she came back to US, she started working with her father she felt that she likes starting and building things. They worked together on a non-profit called Berkeley Earth, which took over the task of reevaluating the temperature records across the globe back to 1700s, Liz was an executive director there. It was a massive data project with billions of data points. They represented an independent (not related to the government) and modern perspective, and were able to address many concerns of global warming skeptics. She believes that the questions asked by climate skeptics were legitimate, taking into account the weight of the decision based on our understanding of global warming. Berkeley Earth’s result were in accordance with other estimations, but they managed to explain issues like urban heat up effect – where the records indicating global warming were in part based on heating of the devices, not higher atmosphere temperature. Now the answer to the global warming question is much more robust.

Open access to the data of Berkeley Earth and current projects (4:18)

4:18-8:22 (Liz describes the open access to the research results of Berkeley Earth, its use and current questions to be answered in climate research being addressed by the organization)

Q. The data acquired by Berkeley Earth is open to the public. Who could be interested in using your results and how could it contribute to the development?
A. The concern about governmental studies was that the data was not available. Berkeley Earth put it all online in various stages of raw data, as well as including some adjustments e.g. in terms of units. Various organizations use the data, but also citizens who want to do their own analysis. Data is pretty robust right now to show that global warming is happening. Two questions of the skeptics remain: what does this mean and what to do about it? These questions are harder to answer, linking these results with events like storms is not as obvious. Berkley Earth still works on collecting global temperature reports. Lately they focused also on the area of big data, analyzing global pollution, which is also a current global catastrophy. The data of Berkeley Earth allows to see the current pollution levels and compare it with what was it in the past – such a thing was not available before.

Beginnings of Deep Isolation

8:22-10:07 (Liz explains the origins of idea to open a used fuel repository company)

Q. After Berkeley Earth, you jumped straight to Deep Isolation? Or was there something in between?
A. Berkeley Earth lead to Deep Isolation, after considering other topics like shale gas and directional drilling and nuclear. The team was not sure if there was any interest for the organization, but they realized that the nuclear waste is a big deal. They came to conclusion that directional drilling creates great opportunities in the area of used fuel disposal, by locating the waste in a horizontal drill hole. Horizontal drilling adds additional levels of security, safety and reduces the cost,

Advantages of horizontal drilling

10:07-12:45 (Deep Isolation uses an innovative technique of storage that involves horizontal boreholes)

Q. You mentioned two options of storing nuclear fuel – vertical and horizontal boreholes, there is also a version that looks more like mine. What are the advantages of your solution?
A. The international consensus is that a safe place for nuclear waste is in deep geologic isolation. There is no way to predict what the earth’s surface is going to look like in a million years. But a mile underground, it is going to look similar to what it is now. That’s why the waste should go there. In the early talks about such a solution for repository, in 70s, the only way to get so deep was a mined repository, incl. staff going down, possibly trucks. In 1980s a deep borehole concept was conceived. The horizontal borehole however, was developed only around 20 years ago. Now it has become an industry standard. Deep Isolation takes advantage of a recently mature technology to apply it to waste disposal.

Deep Isolation’s clients

13:10-15:35 (Liz explains the situation of waste disposal in the US)

Q. Who is going to be your client? A utility or government?
A. In the past US government decided that Yucca Mountain was supposed to be the only solution. That posed some challenges – it is not going forward, but it also blocked other possible solutions. There are several options right now: temporary storage for the utilities that were not able to hand in their waste to the DOE. Lately some regulations were developed on how to handle it safely for shorter periods of time. Deep Isolation wants to apply their solution to store it long term, but also short term. They want to demonstrate their technology somewhere, not necessarily in the US - it would be a good incentive to start changing the regulations in the US, and develop the framework for used fuel disposal in other countries. Deep Isolation is working in the US, but also internationally.

Technical conditions and location of a repository

15:35- 21:02 (Liz describes what conditions does a site need to meet to become a repository and that it is favored to build a repository close to an existing storage site)

Q. Is your solution applicable on any kind of rock and morphology of terrain or there are still some constraints?

A. The key factor needed is “strong isolation” – to be sure that the target layer of rock has been isolated from the surface for the past million years. Unlike other requirements from the past, Deep Isolation’s criterion is not a specific type of rock but the ability to isolate. An isolation assessment was made for a dozen of sites around the world, but eventually, drilling will need to be performed, which belongs to the second stage of the project.

There are some advantages of locating the repository close to a current fuel storage. There are objections to the transportation – people don’t want nuclear fuel to be transported by the road. On the other hand, it is hard to find a place willing to be a storage for all the country. Mined repositories are expensive, so one repository per country is a maximum. Deep Isolation is modular – there can be several holes dedicated to a specific reactor. That changes the conversation – instead of putting nuclear waste in “people’s backyards” the waste stays in the same place but is put into deep isolation. In order to move forward the fastest way possible it is favored to leave the fuel its existing location, but in case it is still accepted or geology is not appropriate, the fuel will be moved.

The communities Deep Isolation visited are very different from one another. Ones can have a very good understanding of the safety issues and some other say they never wanted nuclear waste around. But the conversation is different in such locations than with the communities that don’t have such situation.

Fuel retrieval

21:02 – 24:59 (Uniquely for a horizontal boreholes, the fuel can be retrieved after placing in the storage)

Q. Is it possible to retrieve the fuel?
A. Until around 1.5 year ago people thought that the fuel cannot be retrieved from the borehole. It is harder for a vertical borehole, when the canisters are on one another and potentially the weight of the material is crushing them. But in horizontal, the canisters are laid down flat, only withstanding its own weight. There are tools coming from oil and gas industry aiming at inserting and removing objects from the hole. This is not a new technology and therefore the fuel is retrievable and meets current requirements – the fuel can be retrieved for up to 50y. But there are also ways to make it irretrievable. As long as the horizontal part of the borehole is cased, the fuel can be retrieved, after removing that casing, it becomes much more difficult to go down.

The decision whether the fuel will be monitored beyond 50 years is the decision of the government and the local community, it is possible, but the idea is to leave it as a green field after some time.
Depending on the length of the horizontal section of the borehole, per one reactor you only need around 10 holes and it should be possible to stay inside of the reactor perimeter site.

Entrepreneurial experience in nuclear waste management field

24:59 – 30:30 (Liz shares her impressions of entering waste management field)

Q. You came to nuclear field not having much background. What did you find there?
A. The first 2-3y Deep Isolation would get advises from nuclear waste experts to change their field of business. There are a lot of people who dedicated 30y of their career to solving the waste issue and saw little progress. The mentality of a start-up is why Deep Isolation have seen so much progress in the past few years – they wanted to avoid handing their idea to the government and having it stuck on a shelf. The company idea didn’t crystallize until they found out about the budget related to the waste disposal in the US, which worth around 40bn$. Next as they grew, they found out that the overall budget globally is worth around 600bn $, which is helpful to present to investors.

The 40bn $ is the money that was paid in by utilities for the eventual disposal of the waste of the US. Access to this money is not easy, but it shows that there is price associated with the cost of nuclear waste disposal. Globally, some countries set aside the funds for the disposal, but even if this is not made, there is a budget associated to the expected final storage.

Challenges of Deep Isolation (30:30)
30:30-35:04 (Liz presents challenges that the company is facing )

Q. We talked about the advantages of Deep Isolation solution, what about the challenges?
A. A couple of things. One is on the stakeholder engagement side, another, looking at the government as the customer. When you look at why nuclear waste management programs failed, it’s rarely due to just the technology. It’s also public protests, people opposing the progress of the program. Background of Liz is helpful here – some of her work was in the high-tech government programs and development of the governmental programs to respond to the needs of the people impacted, rather than forcing them to align. Deep Isolation reached out to every major environmental group in the US that cares about nuclear waste and learned a lot fro them. It’s a two way conversation, two way listening. It takes time, building trust isn’t easy especially in an area like nuclear waste. The company wants to build the solution in partnership with people who are impacted by it. It takes time, it’s not easy, but it’s a core value of the company.

Second challenge is that there is that the typical approach to nuclear waste is either creating research program that will last for the next 50y or just moving very slowly accepting the slow progress, because the project is very important. Deep Isolation’s attitude is slightly different, recognizing that it a responsible thing to deal with something now rather than hoping that future generations will figure it out. There is an appreciation of the government to this responsibility, but on the other hand it isn’t the way that this project has been led by now, which is challenging for Deep Isolation. Liz doesn’t expect to have a quick sale cycle, and they expected to last onths or years, but at the same time they are hopeful that there is a number of places that feel urgency – full pools, no will to put the assemblies in the dry storage, imperative to move more quickly in a number of places around the world.

Cooperation with communities and adjusting to new forms of fuel (35:04 )
35:04 – 38:27 (Liz presents the strategy of communication with local communities and the actions that Deep Isolation is taking to prepare for Gen IV spent fuel
Q. Are you planning to work with the communities that are not voluntary for repository?
A. Deep Isolation will only work with communities that are real partners, this has to be a win-win where everybody is involved. Their work in communication starts with finding out if the community is happy with the current state of waste issue, If the answer is yes, maybe there is no need in changing it, but if the answer is no, there might be an opening to a conversation. It’s also challenging, because some communities just want it gone, which unfortunately is not an option now. It may be in the future, but there is some uncertainty around that, which adds a new dimension to the complexity of the conversation.

Gen IV reactors try to learn from the past – leaving the used fuel without a clear solution doesn’t seem to be responsible anymore. There is quite a few Gen IV reactors that are actively thinking about disposal. Deep Isolation is working with them to understand how to dispose of it.

Development (38:27 )
38:27-40:55 (Liz shows the needs for developments to ensure the success of her company)
Q. What could make your job easier in the future, what needs to develop to ensure the success of Deep Isolation?
A. Policies is the one thing, but certainly very important is to run a pilot – a site where they can put waste in Deep Isolation, this could be in the US or anywhere in the world, for any kind of waste.
Deep Isolation is talking to the governments around the world, some of them understand the importance of having new options. Quite a few utilities are also handling the fuel storage and also defense waste sites are interested. The interest is there and Liz is optimistic about the future,

Regulatory environment ( 40:55)
40:55 – 45:34 (Liz describes current regulations surrounding waste management and Deep Isolation’s preparedness to meet them)

Q. Do you think that the regulations of waste disposal are just right or too rigid as for real danger that the waste can create?
A. Deep Isolation had discussions with some environmental groups that weren’t happy with the current regulations. The company however adopted standards that are stronger than those that NRC requires, in part because of the input of concerned people and in part because they can meet them. The advantages of going deeper and not disturbing large amounts of rock, makes the calculations pretty straightforward, lately a calculated case was published on company’s website and it opens to feedback. It shows that the regulations can be met. The concern of Liz is that they don’t want to wait for the development of new regulations, which some people want for horizontal boreholes. They prefer to meet the regulations now and let any modifications happen in parallel, than insisting on updating the regulations.

Nuclear waste can be scary to communities, so the conversation has to revolve around making the repository safer for a very long time, not for the next decades. There is no plan for long time horizon and the waste is kept in a temporary location that is not intended to serve for long – that is concerning for people. Deep Isolation shows that it can meet the requirements and comes to solve the problems of the communities that are interested in it.

Near future tasks ( 45:34)
45:34-47:22 (The closest tasks taken up by Deep Isolation)

Q. What are your upcoming tasks to fulfill in the nearest future?
A. Deep Isolation is signing up first customers right now, multiple conversations at 4 continents, and they plan to announce some news soon. The focus is on initial project, studying the type of waste, geology, to check the alternatives. Eventually the company will move to drilling, taking the samples and showing that requirements can be met for a specific site,

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