Nuclear Energy Is About To Get A Whole Lot Safer Thanks To This Burgeoning Technology
Deep borehole storage is a game-changer
When you picture nuclear energy, you most likely think of one of two things. Either, you see it as an Uber clean energy source, capable of powering us into a carbon-neutral utopia, or you picture a dangerous atomic nightmare, akin to the three-eyed fish swimming in the radioactive wastewater of Mr Burns's plant. In reality, nuclear is one of the safest and cleanest forms of energy we have, yet this pop-culture-led fear of nuclear power has perfused through our entire society, and as such, we are turning our backs on the potentially planet-saving technology. However, Deep Isolation has repurposed technology from the oil industry that promises to make nuclear power even safer and leave the nay-sayers no place to hide. But is this enough to save the nuclear industry?
So, let’s address the elephant in the room first. Nuclear energy isn’t a utopian energy source, but it is one of the safest and cleanest energies out there. According to Statistica, an internationally respected analytics organisation, nuclear power only causes 0.03 deaths per 1,000 TW hrs produced. In comparison, solar kills 0.02 per 1,000 TW hrs, wind kills 0.04 per 1,000 TW hrs, natural gas kills 2.82 per 1,000 TW hrs, biomass kills 4.63 per 1,000 TW hrs, oil kills 18.43 per TW hrs and coal kills 24.62 per TW hrs.
Why such a low death rate? Well, nuclear power is incredibly efficient, meaning less mining and processing needs to take place for each kWh of energy produced, which reduces the mortality rate significantly. What’s more, nuclear power actually creates 100 times less radioactive waste than coal, as coal contains plenty of radioactive impurities.
We have also mastered handling nuclear waste, and the mortality rate from processing nuclear waste is practically zero. As such, it actually far safe to live right next to a nuclear waste storage facility than it is to live near a coal power plant.
So, why is nuclear better than solar or wind? Well, it has the same carbon footprint per kWh as solar, but unlike these renewables, nuclear is an on-tap energy source. This means nuclear can be used to bolster the energy security of a country, and defend against black-outs. This factor will become increasingly important in the near future, as the effects of climate change will mean many will rely on heating and air conditioning to fend off potentially lethal snow storms or heat waves, and as such, blackouts will become a more deadly affair. What’s more, this means nuclear energy won’t rely on giant grid-level batteries to ensure supply meets demands, and as these batteries cause horrific levels of environmental damage (though still less than using fossil fuels for power), this can make nuclear power more eco-friendly than any renewable.
Despite all this, governments around the world are holding back on nuclear power, and the industry is now declining. Why? Well, the cost of nuclear power is rising, and renewables like wind and solar are now far cheaper. But the next generation of nuclear reactors, known as SMRs, are on course to close this gap and make nuclear super affordable by the end of the decade. Sadly, even this doesn’t seem to be enough to kick-start a new era of nuclear power. Why? Well, possibly because governments are now worried about the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste that will remain potentially lethal for thousands of years. How can they ensure it won’t leak and pose a threat for centuries to come? It seems like an impossible task.
Now, as I said at the beginning of the article, storing this waste really isn’t a problem. Instead, it’s more of a perceived problem by the public, and as our democratic governments are at the beg and call of the public, they have to follow suit or lose their position.
But this is where Deep Isolation comes in, as they have completely solved the problem of nuclear waste.
The greed of the fossil fuel industry has led to deeper and deeper drilling technology to extract every last drop of black gold. Deep Isolation plans on using this technology to bury nuclear waste deep in the Earth’s mantle and solve this problem once and for all.
Now, the reason we have never just buried nuclear waste is because we have struggled to drill deep enough to go past the water table, or rocks which have the possibility of making it to the surface in the next few millions of years. As such, simply burying nuclear waste wasn’t a safe option, as the nuclear material could get back to the surface.
But deep isolation plans on drilling down miles below the surface, depositing nuclear waste at the bottom, and sealing off the entire borehole. This is way below the water table, and the rocks this deep won’t see the surface for literally millions of years. The pressure means that the in-filling of the borehole can’t fail. As such, nuclear waste can be safely stored at these depths, as by the time it makes it to the surface, it will be safe. What’s more, this is true for pretty much any location on Earth, meaning that Deep Isolation can permanently store nuclear waste miles and miles directly beneath a nuclear power plant, negating any need for transport, or sourcing new storage locations, massively reducing the cost and red-tape of nuclear waste storage.
Such technology will not only make nuclear power cheaper, but also safer and massively reduce the public’s perceived fear of this incredibly safe technology. But to achieve this, it needs to go from concept to fully tested and fully functional integrated solution, which is not an easy thing!
Now, Deep Isolation has already be running demonstration tests with non-radioactive dummy nuclear waste in Texas since February, and they have been wildly successful. But to get their technology ready for wide scale deployment, they need to do far more demonstrations in multiple locations around the world, with different geological features, different types of nuclear waste, and different set-ups.
To get these demonstrations off the ground, Deep Isolation has started a non-profit organisation called The Deep Borehole Demonstration Center, which is open to participation from governments, utilities, nuclear operators and research organisations interested in potentially using their technology. It aims to advance the maturity of the safety case for deep borehole disposal and the technical readiness levels of the disposal concept, including characterization, construction, canister handling, emplacement and retrieval. So far, members are interested in using deep borehole technology for nuclear waste disposal in nine different countries!
The big news is that the next test has been agreed with Norsk Kjernekraft, a brand spanking new Norwegian company with the goal of constructing and operating small modular reactors (SMRs) in Norway. As SMRs have the potential to produce five times the nuclear waste of regular reactors, using Deep Isolation’s technology might be essential for them. Norsk Kjernekraft CEO Jonny Hesthammer said “Norsk Kjernekraft is passionate about the benefits that nuclear power will bring to Norway’s net-zero energy market — and to achieve these we must show the communities we work in that there are practical solutions available to put the resulting waste safely and permanently out of contact with the biosphere. Deep borehole disposal is a technology that offers huge potential benefits to Norway — for our communities, and for our world-leading drilling industry — so I am delighted to be working with the Deep Borehole Demonstration Center to demonstrate this technology here in Norway.”
This new demonstration brings Deep Isolation’s revolutionary technology closer to reality. If they can get the nuclear industry to adopt their waste disposal methodology, they could cause a nuclear revolution. It will make nuclear power cheaper, safer, help to restore its damaged reputation and maybe turn the governments and the general public’s perception of the planet-saving technology. We can but hope.
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