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Adoption of small modular reactors grows - spent nuclear fuel waste technology must keep pace

By Henry Crichlow - posted Wednesday, 1 February 2023

When the United States recently cleared the design of a small modular reactor (SMR), it marked the removal of yet another obstacle slowing the growth of the nuclear power industry. For the first time, SMRs will be able to be constructed in the United States. Many predict nuclear power will be necessary to reach a clean energy future, as the only energy source that can produce completely carbon-free energy, whatever the weather. The ever-rising cost of climate disasters brings a sense of urgency to reaching that future. Technological advances such as SMRs will be vital to achieving that end.

The emergence of SMR technology means nuclear power plants can be built more rapidly and economically than ever. Full scale plants can take decades to go through the planning and construction process before ever producing a single joule of energy. SMRs can be built in factories, in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost.

However, while SMRs represent the latest advance in nuclear reactor construction, it only exacerbates a long-standing divergence in the nuclear industry. Much investment goes to the research and development of power generation, while comparatively little attention is paid to the spent nuclear fuel waste. With these advances, that gap looks set to grow.


While SMRs ease the industry's growth, the issue of spent nuclear fuel waste remains. Without a spent fuel management system in place, deployment of SMRs risks turning spent nuclear fuel storage and disposal into the Wild Wild West. Currently, around the world tens of thousands oftons of waste are still stored on site at operating nuclear power plants, with one United States' site alone holding 212 million liters in tanks just below the surface.

For far too long, at or near-surface storage has been the solution, an interim answer which turned into a default solution for lack of any proven alternative. Analysis has shown, using 'Chlorine-36' found increasingly in rainwater after atmospheric atomic testing in the 1950s, how long it takes surface waters to migrate downwards. Less than 50 years! Any storage facility within reach of surface water will face the corrosive effects of migrating waters, so storage at or near the surface will not be sustainable.

Fortunately, a proven alternative exists which eliminates many of the obvious flaws of near-surface storage, often misleadingly referred to as deep geological storage. In reality, all current storage facilities are far too close to the surface, relying on man-made containers which will never last long enough for radioactive protection. Additionally, these near-surface storage facilities are prohibitively expensive in time and money, requiring decades of investment and costing tens of billions of dollars - wasted time and money that could be far better spent.

SuperLAT™ Wellbore Storage

The 'brainchild' of the oilwell drilling industry, SuperLAT™ Wellbore Storage was first patented and developed in the 1990 and implements drilling technology used in the oil and gas industry all over the world. Such wells have already been drilled in almost every climate and condition, with over 200,000,000 feet of such wellbores successfully drilled in the US, every year, a proven and reliable method of going 10,000 feet below the surface - well below the reach of any groundwater.


While current disposal solutions adhere to the 'out of sight, out of mind,' approach, safe disposal requires a system truly removed from the ecosphere in a way that prevents nuclear waste migration. After drilling to a depth of 10,000 feet, the SuperLAT™ system accomplishes this by turning, horizontally drilling a further 15,000 feet. Drilling only into geological rock formations proven by radioisotope dating to have been undisturbed for at least 10,000,000 years, the waste is stored at a total measured depth of 25,000 feet.

Furthermore, by storing the capsules horizontally, the system eliminates the increased weight and dangerous pressures which result from vertical stacking. The impermeable rock formation, not any man-made barrier, is the protection for the waste. The wellbores can be easily engineered to fit waste material enclosed in protective capsules, themselves short-term devices designed to transport and store the waste deep in the rock formation.

Affordable, Dependable, Scaleable

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About the Author

Dr Henry Crichlow wrote the engineering book which transformed the oil and gas industry; with an engineering PhD from Stanford, his focus now is utilizing his "brain child", a patented technology he developed in 1998 to utilize oil well drilling techniques as cost-effective and scalable solution for nuclear waste disposal worldwide.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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