Elizabeth Muller is the CEO of Deep Isolation, a Berkeley-based company that seeks to resolve America’s nuclear waste challenge by using technology borrowed from the oil and gas business. In this episode, she explains why the waste issue must be solved before the nuclear sector can have a full renaissance, why Deep Isolation must have success overseas before it succeeds here, the advantages of using boreholes instead of a mined repository (think Yucca Mountain), and why, when it comes to nuclear, “the world has shifted over the past six months.” (Recorded June 28, 2022.)
Robert Bryce 0:04
Everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. In this podcast, we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I think we’re going to touch on all of those today with my guest, Elizabeth molar. She is the CEO of deep isolation. Elizabeth, welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Elizabeth Muller 0:19
Thank you so much, Robert. Now, I
Robert Bryce 0:21
didn’t warn you, but guests on this podcast introduce themselves. So I’m worn some guests. I don’t warn others. I didn’t warn you. So you’re being ambushed here a little bit. But imagine if you have arrived somewhere and you have, say, 60 seconds to introduce yourself and you don’t know anyone there. Tell us who you are, and what deep isolation is, please?
Elizabeth Muller 0:40
Sure. Um, I consider myself an environmentalist. I grew up in Berkeley, California. I love backpacking, I hate going out and spending time in the redwoods and the high country. And so I’ve always cared about the Earth, I’ve always cared about making the world a better place. And about 10 years ago, I was increasingly concerned that the steps that we’re taking to stop global warming aren’t aren’t good enough. They’re not big enough, we all the little things that we’re doing aren’t going to add up to being able to stop what we what we know is coming. And I started thinking about, well, what are the big things we can do if we really want to have an impact on on meaningfully stopping climate change? What is there and I circled back to nuclear as as being one of the big things that I think we do need if we’re going to get to a low carbon future and seriously stop global warming. Problem with nuclear and this is this has changed. But I think as nuclear has gotten safer, and it has gotten safer, I think it was safe to begin with. But it’s gotten even safer in the past decades. The remaining issue, the unsolved issue that people like to complain about is the unsolved nuclear waste problem. And the industry is pretty good at explaining why the nuclear waste problem isn’t really a problem. And I’m sure you’re familiar with that. But it doesn’t change the minds of the public. And the public points to the fact that nobody has ever disposed of high level, high level nuclear waste or spent nuclear fuel. And they’re reluctant to support the future of nuclear power until we can prove that we can do it responsibly. I looked at that problem. And I said, that doesn’t look like it should be an unsolved problem. And part of this was because I’m not from the nuclear industry. So I didn’t know that the history of how hard it has been to solve nuclear waste disposal. But coming in with a fresh eye, it seemed like if there’s something that we can do, that will remain remove a major hurdle to the future of nuclear power, solving the nuclear waste problem, was it and that didn’t seem like it should be an unsolvable problem.
Robert Bryce 2:49
And so we’ll following on that, because that was one of the questions that I had, among the first ones here is that, and I was recently at the breakthrough dialogue, you you and I met there some years ago. But one of the points and I think it was Sam Britton, I think used to work with you said unless or until we saw this or resolve this waste issue, there’s no really no hope for building much more nuclear capacity at all. Is that a fair? Is that a fair assessment?
Elizabeth Muller 3:16
I think it is. I mean, it depends on the country. Certainly, China is moving forward with nuclear and they don’t really seem to have a dependency on solving the nuclear waste problem in order to move forward with building new reactors. But in the US, and in Europe, it’s definitely I think, the biggest hurdle to the future of nuclear power.
Robert Bryce 3:35
When when and how many states has it now that have a law that says no new capacity, no reactors can be built on unless or until the waste solid waste issue is resolved? I know, I believe California still has a ban Minnesota. I mean, these are in place in several states across the country. Do you know that number off the top of your head, it’s more than it’s more than five, maybe less than it was
Elizabeth Muller 3:54
warrantied. Last time I checked, so I don’t know if it’s been updated since then. But yeah, it’s it’s a large number. I mean, there’s a lot of states that have rules on the books and no new nuclear power until we have waste disposal.
Robert Bryce 4:04
And so I’ve written about this. In fact, I was just searching for the piece. And I wrote it in salon and I was probably 10 or more years ago. And now I’m just refreshing and prepping for our discussion today. On the nuclear waste Policy Act of 19 8240 years of call it what it is a failed federal policy that has not moved the needle. I mean, we’ve seen the Yucca Mountain repository funded we’ve seen part of it built was famously called the screw Nevada Act, or you know, whatever. But then Obama, the legend is that Obama wanted Harry Reid support. Harry Reid said, I’ll support you, but you have to kill Yucca Mountain he killed Yucca Mountain and now we’re back effectively. Am I wrong to square one when it comes to having some federal entity that’s ready and willing to take the waste from nuclear utilities? Is that Is that a fair assessment?
Elizabeth Muller 4:55
That’s a fair assessment. I do think it’s a little bit harsh. Um, I think I mean, no country in the world has succeeded with with opening and disposing of waste. The Swedes and the Finns are really, really close. So
Robert Bryce 5:09
what about France? I’m sorry to interrupt, but what about France? Don’t they have a central repository,
Elizabeth Muller 5:13
it’s not yet operational. So they have a storage facility that is operating, but they don’t have a disposal facility that that’s, that’s operational. And I think part of the issue is that this is really, really hard. Or rather, the the way of doing this that up until recently has been the only real way people thought that they could dispose of nuclear waste. Mine repositories are really hard to implement. They’re so expensive, that you can only really think of doing one per country. And that means that you have to move nuclear waste, you have to find a location and say, Okay, this location is going to be the nuclear waste dump for the country. And then you have to convince the communities nearby that they should accept that. Now, in some countries, they have been able to do that. And that’s really remarkable. And they deserve all the kudos for for succeeding with doing something that is that difficult to do. But I think when other countries don’t succeed, and when you get communities such as we’ve seen in Nevada, who are saying, No, we don’t want this in our state, we don’t want this in our backyard. It’s completely understandable. And I think it’s because the the mind repository approach is still an approach that has been the main approach since the 1980s. And there hasn’t been a lot of innovation and how people think about nuclear waste disposal. But now we’re 40 years later innovations have happened. It’s, it’s it’s quite remarkable how much the world has changed in the past 40 years. And this means that there’s space for innovative new ways of disposing of waste, that can be dramatically easier, dramatically simpler and safer all at the same time.
Robert Bryce 6:54
Well, so let’s let’s, let’s talk about the mind. Well, I want to come back to mind repository. But when you said that about the that we haven’t had a successful strategy. But as you were saying this, and I didn’t occur to me when I was making my notes and the questions, but we have the waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad in New Mexico, but it is taking Defense Department waste, but not civilian waste. So I know I’m maybe I’m putting on your spot. And maybe I’m just being argumentative here as we talk about it. But that seems like that’s been pretty successful. And that’s a mind a deep, or you’re shaking your head. No, tell me Is it
Elizabeth Muller 7:34
successful? It’s a fantastic example of a success in this space. It’s not, of course spent nuclear fuel or high level waste, but it is absolutely a mind repository that is operational and is something that we can point to as a success.
Robert Bryce 7:48
And so but that’s military only, but is that DOD waste? Is that Navy, former Navy reactor waste? Is that going into the weapon in New Mexico?
Elizabeth Muller 7:58
No, it’s transuranic. Waste. Okay.
Robert Bryce 8:01
Okay, and so explain that place?
Elizabeth Muller 8:03
Well, I think you gotta get somebody else to explain ways, but it’s not. It’s not high level waste or spent nuclear fuel.
Robert Bryce 8:11
Okay, from reactors. Okay. So, now, so explain, I thought, I read the piece that I think you co authored with your father Richard Mueller, and that was published in 2019. And there’s a great table to comparison between a mind report mind repository and proposed deep horizontal drill hole repository. So as I would typify this and thinking about what you’re doing and looking at your proposal, you’re really bringing oil field design or oil field drilling technology to the disposal of of radioactive waste. And instead of building a big mind and it with a big mind face, and like you would do in coal mining or gold mining or some something else, where you’re sending people down in and having people move stuff underground, you’re using drill strings, like you would in the oil and gas industry. And I thought, Ah now and one of the main thing that jumped out there was that what was it? Oh, yeah, workers underground mind repository? Yes. drillhole rip repository No. And I thought, Ah, well, there even that one part of it, I thought, ham, that’s a big breakthrough. You don’t have people underground, you don’t have to worry about the ventilation, you’d have to worry about hard hats, all these other things. You the size of the hole is much smaller, but I’m jumping ahead. So give me give us the gist of what you’re proposing here with this borehole technology and why this is a breakthrough.
Elizabeth Muller 9:37
Yeah, the the, the international consensus is that where waste needs to go for disposals, what’s called Deep geologic isolation. So this means it has to go deep underground, where, where things can’t don’t change over millions of years and you do need to show that nuclear waste when you dispose of it will be safe for 10s of 1000s to millions of years. There’s so this is this is a pretty high bar to hit. But the consensus is that you want to go deep underground, where there’s room for innovation is how you get it underground. So the vision of the 1980s, I’ll call it was you, you build a mine, and you have people underground and trucks and you remove a lot of rock and he makes space and you have trucks bringing waist down, and you eventually seal it up. And that’s where it belongs. What’s new is that we now have methods for going even deeper. So mine repositories are maybe typically 500 meters at most and in depth. But we can drill deeply I mean, we can go 1000s of meters underground, relatively inexpensive, inexpensively, as you said, due in large part to directional drilling, which is coming out of the oil and gas industry. One of the great things about nuclear waste is how compact it is. So you don’t need a lot of space. Even if without repackaging if you’re to put an individual fuel assembly down a hole, you only need a hole, it’s 18 inches in diameter. And you can potentially go even more compact if you want to do any repackaging, but we’re looking at 18 inch holes, one to two kilometers underground, we like horizontal holes, because they give you more room at a given depth. So rather than vertical holes, which are great, particularly for small volumes of waste, but if you have larger volumes, then you get a lot more room by going going horizontally.
Robert Bryce 11:30
So again, this is mimicking the technology that really the changes change the energy business globally shale, the shale revolution with vertical strings, which were the standard in the industry for a century. And then they started turning the drill bit going sideways or going horizontal and now some of these horizontal laterals are 1015 20,000 feet long. So it how much will it then walk us through about that borehole? What is the existing borehole for oil and gas drilling now? And what size bit do you need? How much bigger do you need it to be to make it work for what you’re proposing.
Elizabeth Muller 12:08
So typical holes in the oil and gas industry are somewhere in the four to eight inches range. So they’re small, they’re they’re significantly smaller than what we’re talking about. But there is best best practice of drilling bigger holes, you always have to start bigger at the top, and then you get smaller the deeper you go. And so there’s there’s significant experience with bigger holes. And there’s some experience with larger horizontal holes, though not as much. So when you look at the 1000s upon 1000s of horizontal wells that have been drilled in the United States, most of those are smaller than then we’re talking about the eight inch hole is actually a nice size for cesium and strontium or for can do react your waste. So there are some waste streams out there that would fit very nicely in in the smaller holes. But for spent nuclear fuel, we think a typical we’re going to want to an 18 inch diameter. That is harder to drill, it’s more expensive to drill, but it’s still dramatically cheaper than building a mind facility.
Robert Bryce 13:09
Right? And so as as I was looking at it, you said it was point four or five meters or about 18 inches that on the diameter. So are you able to use Have you tried that diameter? Are you able to use existing drill rigs with the AC top drive? Or the often can you use off the shelf? Not off the shelf, but that are existing rigs? Are they gonna have to be retrofitted? How do you how do you look at the horsepower drill bit size drill strings? How are you going to manage all of that?
Elizabeth Muller 13:36
So we’re working together with one of our technical partners, so Schlumberger is is actively part of our, our team on this. And they have drilled holes that are similar to what we’re doing. We are talking about doing a demonstration, that would be exactly what we’re talking about, and would sort of put out from beginning to end every single step in every process that would need to happen in order for this to be fully demonstrated. And and that’s something we’re talking about doing as early as kicking it off this year, and then doing the drilling next year.
Robert Bryce 14:12
So let’s rewind a little bit on deep isolation. So the company is is six years old, founded in 2016. Is that right? That’s correct. Yes. And so how much money have you raised?
Elizabeth Muller 14:22
So we’ve raised about 22 million so far.
Robert Bryce 14:25
from venture capital, private investors, angels, who are the people that are backing it?
Elizabeth Muller 14:30
Yeah, a bit, a bit of all. So we were largely early stage, family offices, individuals, people who really care about global warming and solving the nuclear waste problem. I think we’re the initial people who, who got what we’re doing. More recently, yes, VCs. We recently had nucleation capital, who participated in our most recent round. So we were now much more clearly in the venture capitals. face than we were in our early days.
Robert Bryce 15:01
nucleation capital is my friend Rob Adams and Valerie Gardner. Right. Rob has the atomic insights blog and podcast. So and then, do you have an idea about how much money you’re going to have to raise what it what do you think you’re going to need? In? I want to get to the political issues first, but because they’re thick, right, you’ve got a lot of political hurdles, and a lot of political risk here. How much money are you going to have to raise to make this work?
Elizabeth Muller 15:29
So we’re, we think we need to raise another 15 million, and we are already making money. So there is pre disposal work that needs to happen. We are sure, wait,
Robert Bryce 15:38
I’m sorry. You said you’re making money. How are you making? Where’s the revenue coming from?
Elizabeth Muller 15:43
We’re making money on doing pre disposal work. So before you get to the point where you’re actually just waste, you need to look at a particularly inventory particular geology, how would this hole we built in this particular location? What would that look what’s what what would the cost benefit analysis be of doing deep isolation as compared to other alternatives? We’re doing those studies now. And they’re going well, so So a number of our first customers are progressing to the next stage, which we consider a demonstration phase. So I did mention that we’re looking at doing a demonstration in the next year or two. And that I think, is an important next step for the company. We do think that we will, we’re revenue positive now, but we’re not profitable, we expect that the 15 million will really be all we need to have in order to get to the point where we can sustain our ourselves as a company, we may still want to raise more money after that, but it would be to grow faster, rather than as a dependency for success.
Robert Bryce 16:49
And so with that, cash the drilling you would you would outsource all of that hire Schlumberger, or Baker Hughes or somebody else with the drill rig and hire them to drill the borehole and do all of that work. And so you would, you would have all the intellectual capital, but all the machinery that you’d hire all that out, then that’s right, yes. Okay. So then let’s move on then to where? Where do you Where are you going to put it? I mean, this is the this is the other key challenge, right? We’ll come to the Congress in a minute. But the issue with Yucca Mountain has been well, we don’t want to hear and you mentioned in the in the in the paper that came out three years ago, you talked about the different kinds of rock that you can put it in. I know, in talking with Scott Tinker here in Austin, he talked about Granite, granite being one of the best potential places of best rock formations. So walk me through the where and the geology where, and how do you convince or where? How do you make this happen in terms of the surface rights and the subsurface rights.
Elizabeth Muller 17:50
So we’re flipping the equation when it comes to where to put it. So the industry has historically looked at a given range of country, you look at all the different rock types in your country, and you try and figure out where are the few locations where it would be safe for my depository approach. And then you go to those locations, and you do some calculations, and you talk to the community and you try and see one of these communities is open to hosting a repository. As we mentioned previously, it’s a really hard sell. It’s a hard discussion to have. And it hasn’t led to a lot of success. So there have been some successes that we touched on. What we’re doing is we’re flipping that. So there are hundreds of communities around the world that have nuclear waste in them right now. It’s in temporary storage, it’s on the surface, it’s either in pools, or it’s on pads and dry casks. But they already have the waste. And in most of these facilities, there’s not a lot of hope and expectation that it’s going to be moving somewhere else in the near future. We’ve seen that that’s a significant challenge. Even for Consolidated interim storage, it can be really challenging to get a facility cited. What deep isolation is doing is we because of the flexibility that we have with regard to rock type. So Scott Tinker is absolutely right. Granite is great. Sedimentary Rock is also great. We have in fact, we actually started initially thinking that sedimentary rock was going to be better than granite. Granite is somewhat brittle and can fracture more easily. We now think that if we’re going into a granite or basement type of rock, we’re going to have to go a little bit deeper because of that. So if we’re going to sedimentary type of rock, we think that one kilometer is sufficient that we can go two kilometers we can go deeper than that. But one kilometer below the water table is about what we think is is the the minimum depth required. If we’re going into a harder more brittle rock, like granite, then we think it needs to be 1.5 kilometers, but even so 1.5 kilometers well within the range that people are comfortable drilling. And so we believe that most locations where nuclear waste is currently stored today are good sites for disposal, again, depending on the depth. So if you’re looking at 500 meters, which is less than 500 meters, which is the typical depth for my repository, No, it wouldn’t work, there’s a lot, you’d have a much, much, many fewer options if you’re looking at at shallower depths. But when you’re going deeper, we think that most rock type will be good within the one to two kilometer range, which means we can dispose of it where it is now, which means we’re flipping the conversation. So instead of picking a location and trying to convince a community that they should be comfortable with this, we can go out to the hundreds of communities that already have nuclear waste, essentially, in their backyard, and say, Okay, well, we can make this safer for the long term, by putting it deep underground. And that’s a value proposition that they may or may not accept. But we only need one to say yes, in order for deep isolation as a company to be extremely successful.
Robert Bryce 21:06
So if I’m going to read this back to you, as I’m hearing you say, so I’ve been to Indian Point, the nuclear plant in New York now closed, I saw the dry cask storage there, you’re saying you could move a drill rig there, take the dry casks and put it right underneath the plant where it sits right now.
Elizabeth Muller 21:22
We could Yes, again, it’s a community choice. So if the community prefers to keep it on the surface and dry cask and sort of wait for a different solution, then that is an option. But we expect that there will be some communities that will prefer to have it safe underground, where for me, it’s safe today. So don’t get me wrong on that it’s safe where it is right now. But for the longer term, when we’re talking about hundreds to 1000s to millions of years, it will need to be deep underground. And that’s something that we can do within a matter of years.
Robert Bryce 21:52
So well, this is interesting, because I hadn’t I hadn’t thought about drilling it underneath where it is now or putting it underneath those locations. Because I my the catch point that I’ve always thought about the one that’s going to be a real difficulty is moving those casks around, right, because they’re enormous, right? They weigh 100 tons. And so they’re going to have to move on a rail line. And that means that the anti nuclear activists have another pinch point where they can restrict the movement and therefore cause more friction. So you’re saying that you’re trying to eliminate that possibility of moving it at all, then am I am I reading this back correctly to you?
Elizabeth Muller 22:30
Yeah, that’s correct, at least for the first iterations of our disposal solution. So I think once we’ve we’ve disposed of some waste, and you know, a number of communities who have disposed of it near where it is right now, are happy and are satisfied, we’ve sort of proven this out as a safe solution, then I think there are other communities that will not pick that as an option. They’re not interested in disposing at site where it is right now. So we can eventually get to the point where we need to think about moving and maybe having some regional facilities, etc. But I think that’s deep isolation, 2.0. And deep isolation, first iteration is most likely to be at or near the locations where the waste is today.
Robert Bryce 23:12
So one idea that I think I wrote about this, I’ve written a lot since then, in the last 10 or 15 years, but I believe was in the salon PS, why why not use some of the nuclear reservations, like Oak Ridge or someplace like that and go to Oak Ridge? And I mean, you could do deep isolation on one of these nuclear facilities, nuclear focus facilities, Los Alamos or some other place to prove it there, couldn’t you? I mean, wouldn’t that would that be less friction? Or do you want to try and engage publicly right from the beginning?
Elizabeth Muller 23:39
So the US is a very complicated location for us. So I’m not sure that
Unknown Speaker 23:43
federal federal land? Well,
Elizabeth Muller 23:46
everything right, spent nuclear fuel is really complicated. It’s supposed to go to Yucca Mountain, Yucca Mountain is not happening, but it’s still required to go to Yucca Mountain. But the the the national lab facilities are also very complicated and in a somewhat different way. I don’t expect the US to be among our first disposal locations.
Robert Bryce 24:09
Okay. So I misunderstood So you’re saying you think overseas is where you see the? Well, it’s interesting, you say that, because in talking with other people around New Reactors, they’re saying we think it’s going to have to succeed overseas before it succeeds here in the United States that they’re, they’re going to have to get traction with SMRs with Rolls Royce in Britain, or new scale in Romania, or any of the other places in Western Europe, where they talked about this, that it’s going to have to happen there first, and kind of look back to the US and say, See it can be done. Is that or is it you just see a the permitting regulatory regime in foreign countries is more or less there, just less friction and how do you how do you describe that?
Elizabeth Muller 24:46
Yeah, I mean, interestingly, I don’t see the regulatory regime as being a major hurdle for us, which is interesting. I know that’s very different from from nuclear reactor companies and SMRs. But we expect to be able to To meet existing regulations, now, they may want to update those regulations. But if they didn’t, if they just left Left the current disposal regulations, we could meet them and surpass them by three orders of magnitude. So we could be 1000 times safer than is required in order to meet current NRC requirements. Now, this gives us
Robert Bryce 25:20
if I can interrupt you say 1000 times safer in terms of the radiation or in what in what what, what, what is the metric you’re using there in terms of safety, right?
Elizabeth Muller 25:28
That’s the the total exposure to a person living directly above the hole and getting all of their water from groundwater. That’s directly above the Okay. Okay, so go ahead, very safe. And that gives us a good degree of confidence, that regulation, it’s going to be time consuming, there’ll be a lot of work to happen. It’ll take a couple of years. But we’re very, very confident that we will be able to meet the regulatory requirements. So the issue with the US isn’t so much the regulatory regime, as it is the the law, the nuclear waste Policy Act that you mentioned, and particularly the 1987 amendment that says that Yucca Mountain is the waste repository and nothing else is going to be considered until Yucca Mountain is operational. That that makes it extremely hard for disposal to happen in the United States, especially as Yucca Mountain isn’t moving forward. So I think that we are going to need to prove disposal out elsewhere somewhere else in the world, maybe in Europe. And then once we have some some successes that we can point to, then we can come back to the US and try and change that law.
Unknown Speaker 26:39
Because you need an act of Congress.
Elizabeth Muller 26:40
Robert Bryce 26:42
That’s right, which is just as giving you making that happen. It’s just as hard as it sounds. Right. But but you also mentioned in some of your marketing materials, if I’m not mistaken, that there is an enormous amount of money in the nuclear waste disposal fund is that am I using the right term there the 40 some odd billion that’s available that has been set aside through the several Mills on electric utility customers bills that’s sitting there effectively waiting to be spent, look, it’s a lot of money searching for a solution. So you think that there’s a potential there for deep isolation to tap some of that money? Is that fair? Is that what you’re thinking or event? Eventually?
Elizabeth Muller 27:21
Eventually? Yes, I think there’s also some some innovative thinking that could happen around temporary storage. So for example, deep isolation, because the waste even when you put it down, a borehole is retrievable for, say, 20 years, we could potentially cite it as storage. And then once we have that underground, the waste underground, then maybe that would help change the nuclear waste Policy Act. So I think there’s a few different possible approaches. But eventually, yes, we’re going to need to change the law. And that’s going to be complicated.
Robert Bryce 27:57
Have you hired lobbyists? Do you have lawyers working on this in DC? Or is that you just put that off for now, because it doesn’t make any sense for you, or how you doing how you handle,
Elizabeth Muller 28:05
it makes a lot more sense to focus on parts of the world that don’t have this very difficult legal, legal situation. So so we’re really leaning in right now, there are a number of countries around the world that do feel some urgency, particularly Europe, Europe, that is leaning into nuclear power right now. And they’ve also said that nuclear can be considered green, but only if there’s a waste disposal solution. So I think there’s there’s many other places in the world that are much. At evil, we’ll be able to move much more quickly in other parts of the world. And then we come back to the US once we have some success. Gotcha.
Robert Bryce 28:45
And so how is the so has the Alaska lately has so as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped your business then in terms of that urgency that you’re talking about for? Because it sure seems like that has been turbocharged a lot of interest in in nuclear in Europe because of high natural gas prices? Is that has that had any effect on your, your discussions?
Elizabeth Muller 29:08
I mean, I certainly think that Europe right now has a very strong appreciation for for energy independence right now. And yes, they want to get off of Russian natural gas. And I do think that nuclear is part of that strategy and needs to be part of that strategy. That I think combined with the EU taxonomy that says that nuclear is green if it has a waste disposal solution means that there is an openness and I think the world it’s not just Europe, I mean, I think we’re seeing this in other parts of the world too. I mean, even you know, the new president in Korea is very pro nuclear and even here in California, you know, now there’s possible talking talks about keeping Diablo Canyon open. So it feels like the world has shifted pretty significantly. In the past six months, and I think it’s a confluence of multiple factors, you know, urgency around global warming and wanting to do something big and meaningful, and recognition that we need to get off Russian natural gas or Europe needs to get off of that, and recognition that that nuclear needs to have a disposal solution if it’s really going to be responsible. And I think all of these things are leading towards a very strong interest right now, in in deep isolation, I think that, you know, we can solve this problem in a matter of years, rather than the decades that people had previously thought it would take to put nuclear waste into disposal.
Robert Bryce 30:41
Right, but you’re gonna have to, you’re gonna have to prove you can do it somewhere else, and then come back and say, See, we made it made, we made it happen over there. Neener Neener. Now, I don’t think you say Neener Neener. Maybe you’ve won some government grants I read from, are they all from Department of Energy? What are those grants? And how much? And for what?
Elizabeth Muller 31:02
Yeah, so we’ve been working on a number of RPE grants. And we did announce recently that we want a couple of them. These are for advanced reactor waste. So that’s another interesting space for the US in particular. So the US is doing really well, I mean, really remarkable things when it comes to developing advanced reactor technologies. And yet, as these are implemented, there’s sort of an unknown around what’s going to happen with the waste. And is the Department of Energy’s still going to take complete responsibility for it? Or is it now the responsibility of the utility who’s, you know, purchasing the reactor? I think there’s, there’s a gray zone there. That means that there’s a number of issues that we are we are actively working on with advanced reactor companies, so that they can be responsible and figure out the waste disposal solution before they build the reactors.
Robert Bryce 32:04
So when you say that, are you talking about the the the form factor of the waste of the fuel modules themselves? I don’t quite follow in terms of what you’re what you’re talking about in terms of that, that that workflow? What is that? What do you mean? Yeah, so
Elizabeth Muller 32:20
the form the form factors, and this is an important one. So I mentioned earlier the difference in size of the waste, smaller in diameter, the easier it is for disposal. One of the things that we’re looking at is a universal canister. So so what what shape of canister what size of canister can we use for disposal, and then have that be a input into advanced reactors as they’re figuring out what their waste form should should be making sure that it fits inside of this universal canister?
Robert Bryce 32:53
Well, speaking of that, because I’ve been reading about your testing, you’re you’re looking at a specific metallurgy around that canister, there is a specific I’m not remembering what the metal alloy was the bid to reduce corrosion and potential breakdown. What do you do you know what that what that what that alloy is? And why is it Why are you doing it that way?
Elizabeth Muller 33:15
So we may not need to. So for safety requirements, we don’t need the canister. So we’re not dependent on the engineered barriers of the canister or the casing for that matter, for meeting the safety requirements of disposal for 1.5 million years. So that’s not a concern. In fact, we modelled out what would happen if the casing disappeared on day one. And it really doesn’t make any difference to our safety case. What we, what we were looking at in terms of the metals, now the the metals can delay corrosion, which is important for retrievability. Right, so so really is going to depend on how long the waste needs to be retrievable for, which is again a gray zone for Yucca Mountain people were expecting it to be 50 years. But that’s because they expected Yucca Mountain to be open for 50 years, and so it needed to be retrievable until it was permanently closed. Now, in the case of deep isolation while we’re in placing the waist, it only needs to be open for months, really months to years. And so we don’t necessarily need it to be retrievable for longer timeframes, unless there was a reason that somebody wanted it to be retrievable for longer timeframes. So 20 years is going to be fairly straightforward. We don’t think we need any special metals or corrosion resistant materials. Again, unlike oil and gas, there’s not going to be a lot of flow in the in the in the hole. So that reduces corrosion. We can also control the liquid environment what’s in there to minimize corrosion. So we’re really looking at longer term time horizons and there are some locations in some countries. who are interested in retrievability? For 50 to say 100 year timeframe, in which case, we may need special corrosion resistant metals or materials in order to ensure retrievability for those longer timeframes.
Robert Bryce 35:15
So, as you’re saying all this, I’m thinking well, okay, would all of this be obviated? Would we just forget about all this? If we were reprocessing this and using spent waste and making new fuel out of it is that I know that under the Carter administration, right, though, that whole reprocessing went out the window? We haven’t had it since then. Is that even on the table? Now? Is that is that when, why? If it is, where is it? And if not, why not? Why aren’t we talking about reprocessing, instead of disposing of these, these these materials, which still have a lot of juice left in them? So you
Elizabeth Muller 35:48
can reprocess, but you still have waste at the end? So you still need disposal? And, you know, it’s an interesting question, because, you know, some people talk about reprocessing as a way of minimizing the volume of waste. But the volume of waste already is so small, I mean, again, we’re sort of talking about the compactness of maize. And so I’ve never really seen this as a volume problem. It’s more of a binary problem, you either have disposal or you don’t have disposal. And so you know, we can we can dispose of reprocessed waste, we can dispose of non reprocessed waste, we’re sort of agnostic when it comes to reprocessing. And certainly various countries have have different policies and different practices.
Robert Bryce 36:30
So let’s talk about that volume or weight. I’ve seen various analyses, and I’ve included some included some of them in my own books about how much waste there is in the US. I know you’re talking about overseas first, but nevertheless, what are we looking at in terms of the US in terms of existing waste? Now? How many tonnes and how many boreholes? Would you have to drill? If tomorrow? They said, deep isolation, you’re in charge of handling all this? How many bore holes do you have? How many? How much? Would you have to drill it? How much waste is there? And how much waste per per hole? Can you fit?
Elizabeth Muller 37:02
So I’m gonna keep with the numbers really simple?
Unknown Speaker 37:04
That’s great. I’m glad because I’ve asked you a lot of complicated.
Elizabeth Muller 37:08
So we’re looking at about 1000 metric tons on average per reactor. Okay. So you know, not a correct number, but it’s close enough. And that would on average go into about 20 poles.
Robert Bryce 37:23
So 500 tonnes per 50 tonnes per hole, then?
Elizabeth Muller 37:29
Robert Bryce 37:31
So and right now we have what 60,000 60,000 tonnes of waste that exists today in the US roughly is that
Elizabeth Muller 37:39
last I heard it was closer to 90, I think. Okay, all right.
Robert Bryce 37:43
I have old data. And then. So talk about that, in terms of that, that. And this is the part that as I looked at some of the photos, you’ve got the assembly, whether they say the fuel rods, but if you’re going to push them down into the into the hole, then that seems to me that the critical part is from the point of where the cask is to the to the drill floor to getting it down. So how do those workers then that are right there at the on the on the drilling table? Or did they need to be extra have extra radiation protection? What is is that the pinch point in terms of this whole process? Where’s that? Where’s the friction point in that movement from the dry cask into the into the borehole?
Elizabeth Muller 38:27
Yeah, so it’s a great question. The good news is that we have a lot of practice with this. So there are companies that specialize in managing spent fuel so so how do you get it from the pool to a dry cask, for example, and that those systems were partnered with NAC international that does this sort of work. And those exist already, largely that the new piece of this is the special deep isolation canister. So that is a new design, it’s something that we’ve been doing together with, with NAC International, that canister will need to have some sort of shielding until it can get to the top of the hole. So again, we can combine the existing expertise on spent fuel building and management together, what’s what’s important, and what we’re working through is the interface. So at what point does the company like like NAC international handoff to the drilling company, for the emplacement? of of the waste,
Robert Bryce 39:28
right? And presumably, you’re gonna have robots doing a lot of this, right? I mean, I mean, that’s the digitization automation of the drilling process has been going on for a long time, but presumably, you’re gonna have it’s gonna be a lot safer, the fewer people that are nearby, right, as much as
Elizabeth Muller 39:44
certainly no people nearby. I mean, it could be managed remotely at a distance or it could be like, as you say, We’re robotically, but either way, you wouldn’t want people to be anywhere nearby.
Robert Bryce 39:56
That’s correct. So what are the biggest challenges you face now? I mean, you see seem like you’ve had, I mean, the way you’re talking you sound, you know, you have an enormous amount of confidence. I mean, you, you, it kind of exuded here that you’re very confident you’re gonna make all this work, you’ve had good money, good challenge or good success in raising money 22 Millions, a lot of dough. What are the what are the biggest challenges you’re facing?
Elizabeth Muller 40:18
Yeah, I mean, I exude confidence, because the technology is so straightforward, right. So that’s not our challenge, our challenge are the timeframes that it’s going to take in order to get this to happen. And, you know, I’m, again, optimistic because we only need one site, and there are hundreds of potential sites, and anyone that moves forward, we’re looking at a billion dollar contract. So there’s a lot of opportunities to do very well, for our investors, we’re pretty excited about that. What I genuinely don’t know is whether we can do it in three years, or five years or 10 years. And that’s our challenge. Investors like certainty, and investors like to know that, you know, we’re going to have our first or disposal contract, even though we’re not going to implement it for another three years, it’s been signed and ready to go. And that’s challenging. This is a world in which even with the the increased pressure of Global Warming and Energy Independence and sort of leaning into nuclear power, the people who are the decision makers, when it comes to nuclear waste disposal, are not used to taking decisions that will actually lead to disposal. They like doing research, they, they could do research for decades before actually taking a decision. And that’s our biggest challenge. And it’s a very significant one, we do need. I mean, we didn’t we need decisions to be taken, if we’re gonna make nuclear waste disposal a reality somewhere, somewhere, someone in the world has to go first. I do think that there are some locations where there is significantly more urgency to do so for a number of reasons. US isn’t one of them. But that’s that’s where we’re looking for, for our first success. And we’re hoping to have, we’re expecting to have our first disposal within the next five years.
Robert Bryce 42:09
So is it fair to say, then, I’m going to read back to you what I think you’re what you’re saying. You seem like you’ve pretty well typify the geologic risk, you think you’ve contained the technological risk, but it’s the political risk that your is your biggest is your biggest unknown.
Elizabeth Muller 42:26
Yeah, I will even add to that, that I think we’re comfortable with the regulatory risk, which is unusual in this space. But I think we’re comfortable with that. It’ll take time, it’ll
Robert Bryce 42:34
tell me, how do you mean, the political risk versus the regulatory risk of it, you break that down for me, if you don’t mean, if you don’t mind,
Elizabeth Muller 42:40
the political risk, as I see it is the decision makers. So yes, we’re going to move forward, we’re going to have a contract for deep isolation to dispose of our waste at a particular location. That’s what I say is the political risk, the regulatory risk, once that decision is made, we will have to jump through the regulatory challenges. And those are real, and those will take a couple of years to get through to, to show that everything I’ve been saying about the safety is actually true. That’s going to be a delay on whatever implementation of this happens. But I’m very confident that we will be able to meet those regulatory requirements. So I don’t see that as a risk, per se. It’ll just take time and effort. Whereas the political issue, I think you’re you’re right, that that is that is our that is our risk.
Robert Bryce 43:35
So if I’m reading, so I’m just gonna play this back to you, because I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. So if you get a deal with, say, Germany, or France, in Europe, and you get the agreement from the politicians that this is a deal, but you still have to deal with the bureaucracy in terms of all the nuts and bolts of the permitting for the individual side. Is that Is that what is am I am I hearing it? Am I playing that back correctly?
Elizabeth Muller 44:00
Yeah, once we have a decision maker who has said yes, let’s sign the contract for deep isolation to go through the regulatory process and dispose of our waste. I think we’re good, you know, the risk will be very small. At that point, we’ll be able to meet the regulatory requirements. So I think that the risk is that political one that you identified of getting that those first customers to say yes, and design those contracts.
Robert Bryce 44:22
So back to deep isolation. So how many people on payroll now, you said, You’ve had good success on raising money, how many people are working for you now?
Elizabeth Muller 44:31
So we’re 50 people right now, which includes 25, who joined us recently as part of an acquisition of Freestone environmental up near the Hanford Site in Washington State. They’re geologists primarily and who are in the space and that will be very relevant to what we’re going to need to do for our first customer. So site characterization, geologic assessments, etc.
Robert Bryce 44:57
So let me ask you about your job as the kind of the one that said Driving this bus here the CEO job, what’s the hardest part of your job, then?
Elizabeth Muller 45:05
I think the hardest part of my job is is is? Well, there’s a lot of hard parts of the job. I think I think the hardest part is genuinely moving these customer moving our customers and creating a vision that people get. I think that there’s a natural resonance, when it comes to understanding that nuclear needs to be part of our future. I think the the sort of people that we’re talking to increasingly understand that, and I think they also understand that nuclear waste disposal has to be part of that in order for them to move forward. So understanding the vision, I think is there, but moving from vision to action is is challenging. And I’m sure you know, governments move slowly. They’re, they’re somewhat risk averse. And that’s the hardest part of my job, I think is even though there’s a broad consensus that this is the right thing to do, that we’re really safe that this is cost effective. It’s not economical. And I think we’re there, I think we have all of that. But even even so taking that to actually moving it into into action can be slow.
Robert Bryce 46:17
So to paraphrase that back to you, you’re saying the hardest part of your job is closing the sales cycle? Absolutely, yes. And you have a long sales cycle to make it happen. That’s correct. And you got to have patient money behind you to make sure that they’re saying, Oh, well, you know, good, you know, but you, but time is money, and you’ve got to make this happen. You’ve got to close that sale sometime soon to get that momentum going forward. So you can prove the technology and then get the second customer and then you get the second third one, then you’re off to the races.
Elizabeth Muller 46:47
Yeah, I think you know, doesn’t necessarily, I don’t think we need patient capital. And the reason for that is there are so many opportunities that even if most locations, and most countries are not ready to take that decision, we only need one that that is. And I do think what we don’t know right now is which of the dozen or so countries that we’re talking to right now is going to be able to take that decision first. And so we’re maintaining these fairly intensive relationships with, you know, quite a few governments around the world and hoping that one of them is going to say yes, within a short timeframe. I do expect that one of them will, but I don’t know which one of them is going to be first and it’s it’s so I don’t think it necessarily needs to be patient capital, because I do think that with one of these moving forward within the next five years, and I do expect that one of them will be there will be a very significant exit opportunity and return on investment within five years.
Robert Bryce 47:57
So does that mean going public then with the how do you see that the investors being paid back you see deep isolation being publicly traded?
Elizabeth Muller 48:07
I think it could be I think we could also be a very attractive acquisition target for some of the big players in the in the space
Robert Bryce 48:17
for the big industrial companies that are already in the space floor, the engineering and design companies that are engineering design and build companies, those those those kinds of keywords. I’m just thinking off the top of my head that they Okay, so just a few last questions. And my guest, by the way, I haven’t had a station break here and not once in 50 minutes or so my guest is Elizabeth Elizabeth Muller. Excuse me, She is the CEO of deep isolation. You can learn more about them at deep isolation.com. So what are you reading? what’s what? I asked my this of all my guests. What’s on the top of your sales or your books stack? They’re at you got a bunch of books behind you. What’s it what’s at the top of the list these days?
Elizabeth Muller 48:57
So I just started reading the 5am Club. Okay, that’s what I’m reading right now. I also got this one. It’s called breath which I haven’t started yet. But that’s at the top of my list. I spent a lot of time reading so I really enjoy reading is as you can probably tell, so just read prediction machines on the future of AI a lot of interesting technology coming out these days.
Unknown Speaker 49:21
So you’re a nonfiction reader.
Elizabeth Muller 49:24
I listened to nonfiction on audiobooks very regularly. So I buy the books because I liked flipping through them, but I actually listened to them on Audible. Yeah,
Robert Bryce 49:34
well, I have a lot of people I had a guest, Jack Davis, I bought his book the bald eagle and I bought the book. I bought it on Kindle and I spent a lot of money on books on his podcast. So last thing, Elizabeth then you’ve been kind with your time. So you’re in a very you’re in a business that is I would say challenging speculative there are a lot of chat. There are a lot of variables what gives you hope? What makes you optimistic
Elizabeth Muller 50:00
I think that right now, we are seeing very significant interest in in deep isolation. I think that people understand that nuclear is important right now in a way that they really haven’t even just six months ago. And I think that the nuclear waste problem, people understand the safety of nuclear power has gotten so good recently, that it’s really not an issue. So the future of nuclear is no longer dependent on improved safety, the safety is there. But this unsolved nuclear waste problem is still a hurdle. And people understand that. I mean, I’ve been saying this for six years now. But the message hasn’t fully landed until about three, four months ago. And something has shifted now. And I think all of a sudden, people understand not only that, the importance of waste disposal, but that we can actually do it that we can do nuclear waste disposal in three to five years, tick that box. And we will, we’ll keep going, obviously, but they’ll be able to move on with the future of of nuclear power in a significant and meaningful way.
Robert Bryce 51:08
Well, I think that’s a good place to stop. So Elizabeth, many thanks for your time, my guest, again, has been Elizabeth Mueller. She’s the CEO of deep isolation. You can learn more about her and all the things they’re doing. Read the paper that Richard wrote in 1999. You are I’m sorry, 2019. You’re a co author on that paper. Is that right? I think some of the look at the tables. I think it’s very interesting to just do some comparisons around the mind repository versus the horizontal drill hole repository, and just pretty, pretty striking. differences there. So Elizabeth, thanks a million for being on the power hungry podcast.
Elizabeth Muller 51:40
Thank you so much, Robert. It’s been my pleasure. And thanks to all of
Robert Bryce 51:43
you for tuning in. See on the next episode. Until then, bye