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If Nuclear Energy is the 'New Green', What Do We Do With Toxic Waste?

Amidst The Global Turn Toward Nuclear Power, Why Ultra-deep Nuclear Waste Repository Systems May Be The Answer To Our Problems.

Article Written By Dr. Henry Crichlow

As the world begins to take serious action to tackle climate change, the war in Ukraine has linked energy security with renewable energy sources like never before.

Today, ‘nuclear is the new green.’ Nuclear energy produces the carbon and emissions free energy critical to meeting increasing world energy needs, without the negative effects of climate warming emissions. The future for nuclear energy is excellent, with one significant caveat:

The nuclear energy industry produces a deadly and toxic waste that lingers for millennia and must be safely sequestered for thousands of years.

The nuclear industry has always been bifurcated in its thinking. Power generators profitably produce clean power and store their toxic waste onsite, in cooling ponds or concrete bunkers.

These short-term solutions rely on the hope that someday, the appropriate agency will ‘take out their trash.’ The actual nuclear waste disposal management effort is relegated to a series of agencies or other usually under-funded regulatory entities. These have striven un-successfully for decades to develop and manage a viable disposal system. After billions of dollars, and decades of fruitless effort, that disposal system has not yet been finalized.

Today, the accumulated waste has reached alarming quantities, and become extremely expensive to maintain. Attempts to dispose of the waste in near surface repository mines, tunnels or caves have run into massive hurdles — economic, environmental, technological, public resistance — leading to decades-long delays.

In the short term, some have proposed continued storage of thousands of tons of toxic waste on the surface — in desert regions, on gravel or concrete pads, guarded by a mere chain link fence. By treating disposal as an afterthought, the inability to demonstrate safe, coherent, timely and economic disposal has slowed nuclear industry development.

To date no one group has formulated an acceptable means to dispose of the accumulating high-level waste. Several countries continue throwing good money after bad, trying to implement expensive and time-consuming storage in near-surface rock layers within our water table. On top of the environmental risks, such approaches cost up to $35 Billion and require several decades to be implemented. They have inherent problems, some insurmountable, and some researchers believe near surface disposal is not the answer and may never be implemented.

Most significantly, migrating surface rainwater can contaminate near surface waste storage zones in our lifetimes. Analysis has focused on the ‘Chlorine-36’ problem, a chemical found increasingly in all rainwaters, especially after the atmospheric atomic bomb tests of the 1950s.

Chemical analysis of the ‘Chlorine-36’ in rainwater has proven, rather conclusively, that in less than 50 years the surface rainwaters shall migrate downward — with disastrous results to the containers kept in near surface storage.

SuperLAT™ Wellbore Storage

However, there is one exception. NuclearSAFE has developed and is currently implementing an engineering solution to this seemingly intractable problem — the SuperLAT™ wellbore, patented technology by NuclearSAFE. This waste disposal technology was researched, developed, and patented in the 1990s* and later presented at an international Environmental Conference in Regina, Canada.

This novel and extremely effective technology is the modified ‘brainchild’ of the oilwell drilling industry, building on the learned experience of over two million wells successfully drilled.

More than 200,000,000 feet of horizontal wellbores are successfully drilled each year.­­

Safe disposal of the HLW requires a system far removed from the ecosphere and human environment to prevent nuclear waste migration. Not just metaphorically ‘out of sight,’ but in physically closed zones, with no possible interference or interaction by the public.

Demonstrably capable of protecting humankind for hundreds of thousands of years, horizontal wellbores implemented very deep in closed geological rock formations meet all these requirements. This is the basis of the SuperLAT™ system.

With this new technology, nuclear waste repository systems can be drilled in a deep zone at least 10,000 feet below the surface and successfully extend the wellbore laterally another 15,000 feet into the selected disposal formation for a total measured depth of 25,000 feet.

This vertical depth places the HLW far below any surface waters, in a zone that can be demonstrably shown by radioisotope dating to have been undisturbed for at least 10,000,000 years.

A single lateral wellbore with a nominal diameter of about 14 inches may store 1,000,000 lbs of waste, or a thousand waste capsules, across its 15,000-foot length. The nuclear waste is stored in steel capsules lying horizontally in the lateral wellbores. This further protects the capsules by minimizing the increased weight and dangerous pressures that would result from vertical stacking of very heavy uranium containing capsules.

In this new technology, the deep impermeable formation is the ultimate protection for the waste. The capsules are simply short term (10,000 year) devices to transport and sequester the waste in the deep repository. The continued refrain that current waste forms are too large and are not amenable to wellbores is totally fallacious and ill-informed as to the physical characteristics of the waste material itself.

Versatile and Dependable Solution The deep lateral wellbore system technology benefits from speed, safety, deployability, versatility, and economical advantages as compared to the aforementioned alternatives. For less than USD $35 million, lateral wellbores can be drilled and completed within 100 days, compared to three or four decades for some multi-billion-dollar near surface repositories planned around the world.

Furthermore, several lateral wellbores may be drilled from the same site or location by simply ‘walking’ the drill rig over 200 feet and drilling another wellbore. Simultaneous operation of more than one rig is also possible. Simplicity, safety, and cost effectiveness are critically important issues in this new technology for nuclear waste disposal.

Another feature of this SuperLAT™ system is its ability to ‘re-boot’ rapidly and inexpensively in the event of an accident. Nobody designs a backup for a multi-billion-dollar system, so these near surface mines and tunnels are ‘one-shot’ approaches.

If some catastrophic event occurs, the site may be condemned and all is lost, necessitating a restart of billions in costs, the years and billions already invested a total waste.

On the other hand, if a SuperLAT™ wellbore system were deemed unworkable, it will be known within 60 days and the system restarted at a different location after only spending a few million dollars. In a SuperLAT™ system, a severe accident may cost a few million dollars and a loss of 3 to 4 months to relocate to a different pre-selected repository location.

In the matter of staffing, using the new SuperLAT™ technology, there is no need for a ‘town on the surface and a village underground’ to manage disposal operations. No underground mining operations, no extensive power, no safety evacuation zones, and no personnel facilities either on-surface or below ground. No need for thousands of workers as proposed in the US and Canada.

The SuperLAT™ uses a minimal crew, less than 30 professionals and a series of shielded robotic automations. The disposal system is fully automatic and loading the ‘just in time’ delivered waste capsules, which are prepared off-site, is robotically controlled on the surface, using what have been euphemistically called ‘iron-roughnecks’ in the oil drilling industry.

In 2022, the oil and gas drilling industry has the capacity to deploy as many as 2,000 separate drill rigs simultaneously. Scalability is NOT a problem for implementation of the SuperLAT™ systems. Drill rig capacity and well trained and experienced manpower are eminently available worldwide.

It is fully expected that in less than 10 years this SuperLAT™ shall become the means for nuclear waste disposal worldwide. With the increasing visibility of the impact of climate change, increasing energy prices coinciding, a continued rise in energy demand, and the clear need to move on from unreliable energy sources in order to achieve reliable and sustainable energy security, SuperLAT™ wellbores enable carbon-free nuclear power to be an emissions-free part of the solution.

* US 5,850,614 (Crichlow)

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Dr. Henry Crichlow

Dr. Henry Crichlow is the founder and CEO of Nuclear SAFE Technologies, and has spent over twenty years developing and implementing economically and technically viable nuclear waste disposal processes and options for spent nuclear fuel, weapons-grade plutonium, high-level nuclear waste liquids and slurries, and depleted uranium products. Dr. Crichlow is a Professional Engineer and a scientist with a Ph.D., from STANFORD UNIVERSITY. He has over 55 years continuous professional experience in oil, gas, computers, engineering, energy, optimization, and nuclear waste technology.


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