Nuclear Waste Disposal: Deep Isolation Pitches the Government

Nuclear waste disposal remains a problem across the US. On this episode, CXOTalk host, Michael Krigsman, talks with the two founders of a small company that wants to solve this problem and sell to only one customer -- the federal government.


Aug 24, 2018

Nuclear waste disposal remains a problem across the US. On this episode, CXOTalk host, Michael Krigsman, talks with the two founders of a small company that wants to solve this problem and sell to only one customer -- the federal government. 

Elizabeth Muller is Co-Founder and CEO of Deep Isolation, a start-up company providing a safe and permanent solution for nuclear waste disposal. She is also Co-Founder and Executive Director of Berkeley Earth, a public-benefit organization using modern statistical techniques to study and address major environmental concerns such as global warming and air pollution.

Richard Muller is Co-Founder and CTO of Deep Isolation. Deep Isolation patents co-author who served as a Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley for 34 years. Also served on JASON, an independent group of elite scientists which advises the United States government on matters of science and technology. Winner: MacArthur Prize and Breakthrough Prize.


Michael Krigsman: Nuclear waste, it is a huge, huge problem, and I bet you don't realize how bad a problem it actually is. I'm Michael Krigsman. I'm an industry analyst and the host of CXOTalk. Today, on Episode #302, we are speaking with two people who are trying to change the way the world disposes of nuclear waste.

Now, before I introduce our guests, right now please, please subscribe on YouTube, and I want you to tell your friends to watch as well.

Our guests today are the CEO and the chief technology officer of a company called Deep Isolation. It's very unique because it's a startup that is trying to take on the government and nuclear power plants and change how we dispose of nuclear waste. It's an audacious and bold problem that they are trying to solve.

Without further ado, I want to introduce Liz and Richard Muller. Liz, how are you? It's great to see you. Tell us about Deep Isolation.

Elizabeth Muller: Thank you, Michael. The nuclear waste problem that we're trying to solve is, as you said, actually a really big deal even though many Americans haven't heard of it, don't know about it, and are unaware of the current situation. We have here a nuclear waste pellet; not a real one, but an example of what spent nuclear fuel looks like. The important thing to keep in mind is that this would kill you. It would take, what--?

Richard Muller: Well, if you were exposed to it for about a minute and that's it, you would probably die within an hour.

Michael Krigsman: That little thing?

Richard Muller: This little thing. Well, not this one, but yes.

Elizabeth Muller: Like that, yeah.

Richard Muller: These pellets, they come out of the nuclear reactors. This is the form in which they come out of the nuclear reactors. It's not an oozy green sludge. It's these little ceramic pellets, but they are exceedingly dangerous. The gamma rays come out and they expose you.

Elizabeth Muller: Then also, it's important to know that we have 80,000 tons of these pellets all around the United States in about 70 locations, and one-third of all Americans live within 50 miles of this spent nuclear fuel. It is in temporary storage, so it is, we think, safe in its temporary storage, but has always been meant to be temporary and there is no disposal facility for spent nuclear fuel that exists right now in the United States. It's been really hard to move forward any sort of plan to actually move into action on creating a disposal facility.

Michael Krigsman: It's extraordinary to think that it's so powerful that a pellet that size can literally kill you.

Richard Muller: Nuclear radiation is something that people fear for that reason. Yet, it's the fact that it puts out so much radiation that is the key to why it's so valuable, why we get so much of our electricity from it.

Michael Krigsman: Okay. What's the problem then? We've got these pellets, and we bury them in the ground and we forget about it. A million years go by or whatever it is, and we're done. Why are we so concerned about this? I'm being facetious, obviously, but it's a serious question.

Elizabeth Muller: The problem has been that nobody wants this in their backyard, right? There is the Yucca Mountain facility, which was proposed in the 1980s. It's a very big, very expensive facility that's intended to be in Nevada. But, the Nevadans have come out against it and, in particular, the transportation issue is a really big problem.

As I mentioned earlier, we have locations of this, 70 different locations all around the United States, and nobody wants it going through their backyard. It would really need to go through a lot of backyards in order to make it to Yucca Mountain. That's been a really big problem.

Richard Muller: Right now there is one facility that was under construction and was halted by President Obama, in Nevada. This is the Yucca Mountain facility. The idea was that this would take -- it couldn't -- it's not even proposed to be big enough to take all the waste, but would take the first waste from Pennsylvania, from Georgia. It would be shipped across the country into this facility in Nevada.

Then the people in Nevada, it's none of their nuclear waste; they don't have any nuclear reactors. They don't want this. They've been told by their politicians that, basically, Nevada is the dumping ground for the garbage of the rest of the country.

We have no facility. We have no place to put this. It's all in temporary storage.

Michael Krigsman: Now, I want to ask you about your technology solution and then turn to the business aspects. But, before we do that, let me ask you maybe an impertinent question. Given the extent, the size, and the complexity of this problem, frankly, what makes you qualified to solve it?

Richard Muller: Well, we have a background in both drilling technology and in the nuclear technology. It's because of this that we've been able to recognize this is really a tale of two technologies. The original plans for conceived of in the 1970s and 1980s, and this was locked in; we go ahead; it's going to go to Yucca Mountain. But, in the last 20 years, there have been absolutely amazing developments in the drilling technology.

The fact is, this fuel, even 80,000 tons of it, it's actually compact enough that we can put it all down into 300 drill holes underground, drill holes of the kind that we weren't making 20 years ago, but which now have become a commodity. These are the sorts of things you can drill at a relatively low cost. Every drill hole has a volume capacity of about 100 cubic meters, so there's plenty of room for this extremely compact nuclear waste.

Elizabeth Muller: Now, I'll also just add that the government has really failed to deliver a solution. Now, there is potential that Yucca Mountain might be restarted. It might move forward. But, it's going to cost $100 billion.

The government has been unable to solve the problem. The big industry has not come up with a solution. We think that this is a space where a startup company with private funding can do things faster. We can be more nimble. We can do things in a way that nobody has been able to do it in the past.

Michael Krigsman: Richard, I know that you are a scientist and have developed very interesting techniques associated with that. You've also been able to get onboard very leading thinkers in the world on this approach. And so, would you describe a little bit about your background, as well as the folks that you have onboard?

Richard Muller: I like the startup projects so, in my past, I have founded several fundamental research projects in physics that led to great discoveries.

Elizabeth Muller: It led to Nobel Prizes for the people that he handed off to.

Richard Muller: Yeah, so these had to do with astrophysics. They had to do with practical things with radioisotope dating that led to the method that is widely used now for most radioisotope measurements. I have this long background of founding big, successful projects and I think I know how to do that.

I've also worked very deeply for a very long time on urgent U.S. national security issues, so this was working closely with the government to help them move forward on problems that were really challenging them. I regard the future of nuclear power, of this waste, to be a national security issue. This is really an important thing, which is now marred down in politics and not taking advantage of developments in technology over the last 20 years.

Michael Krigsman: Is this primarily a technology or a political issue?

Richard Muller: The basic idea is technology. The technology is so compelling that we're able to bring onboard these world-class experts who say, "Wow. This is the solution that we were looking for." The challenges tend to be largely government, regulatory, and political.

Elizabeth Muller: In terms of our company, I would say we're about one-third technology; one-third political, government, trying to get a pathway through the government so we can be a business, we could actually dispose of the waste; and one-third, I would say, outreach to communities, to environmental groups, making sure that we're doing something that really works for everybody who is going to be impacted by it. By everybody, I really mean everybody in the United States and the world because we're all impacted by nuclear waste.

Michael Krigsman: Presumably, you've taken these three pieces because the technology, the policy and politics, and then community acceptance are the three components that need to be in place in order for this type of solution to ultimate be accepted, be adopted.

Elizabeth Muller: They all influence one another too, so the feedback and the conversations that we have with the public and with environmentalists can influence the design of the technology. And so, it's not just separate silos. This is really three pieces of a cohesive whole.

Richard Muller: For example, because of our interaction with the public, learning what really concerns them and what doesn't, we are starting an initial program where the nuclear fuel, at the nuclear reactor, the fuel is stored at the reactor where it was burned. This radioactive waste, two-thirds of it in just pools inside concrete buildings. We can take that fuel, and we could bury it deep underground at the very location where it exists with no transportation across the state.

We hadn't realized how important this was until we did our public surveys, and we discovered that, "Not in my backyard," means, "Don't bring your garbage into my backyard." But, if my nuclear material is in my backyard already, then rather than transport it out of our state across our highways, through our towns, bury it deeply right where it is.

Elizabeth Muller: Yeah.

Richard Muller: This is how the public information has really affected our technology.

Michael Krigsman: Can you describe how you apply oil fracking techniques to your novel solution for the disposal of nuclear waste?

Richard Muller: Yeah. What we're doing is using the technology that's been developed, but not the fracking. We don't frack. There's a lot of it we don't use. But, in the oil shale, oil and gas recovery, what they do is they drill down, typically half a mile, maybe a mile, and then they curve the pipe. It's amazing to think that the pipe can be curved, but the curve is so gradual that even the seal casing they put down there can bend around that.

Then they go horizontally into a shale formation. A shale formation has held natural gas for tens to hundreds of millions of years. Our thought was, what an ideal place to put something that you're worried about. That is, nuclear waste will continue to be dangerous for tens of thousands of years. Let's put it in or under a formation that has held even gas for ten to a hundred million years.

Elizabeth Muller: It's a great starting point for knowing that nothing is going to get out.

Michael Krigsman: What gave you the idea to apply this technique, to develop this technique and apply it to this problem?

Richard Muller: Well, we had a background in shale drilling. We'd spent some time, particularly in China, because they have this horrendous air pollution problem. If they can switch from coal to natural gas, we will literally be saving millions of lives. I mean 1.6 million people die every year in China from air pollution.

We had this background in the drilling technology where we're working with people in Texas and elsewhere that are really experts. But, we saw the nuclear waste issue as being one that is unsolved, and we began to educate ourselves on that. Then, suddenly, we realized we can put these two technologies together. One offered the solution for the other.

When we talked to people in the nuclear business and told them about the drilling technology, the typical reaction was, "Well, if you put something underground and you can't get it back up, it's a legal requirement that you be able to recover that stuff."

We'd say, "No, we recover it all the time. People do this. They even have a nickname for it. They call it fishing," and there are companies that specialize in fishing. The problem was there was nobody who knew both of these technologies, and we did.

Elizabeth Muller: The current designs for a nuclear waste disposal, which haven't, in the U.S., been actually implemented, the designs are all from 1980s or earlier. We've come a long way. There's been a lot of innovation since then, and so we're now able to take a fresh start and say, "Okay, if we were to start from scratch today, is there a way that we could do it that would be safer, cheaper, faster, and easier to implement?"

We like the fact that it's distributed, that it's modular, rather than having a single central repository.

Michael Krigsman: You know what's really interesting to me about this? One of the aspects is, I talk to a lot of startups and almost all of them describe how they have a revolutionary approach to something that's going to change the world. You guys really are trying to change the world. [Laughter]

Elizabeth Muller: [Laughter] We think so, but sometimes we're concerned that everyone thinks so.

Richard Muller: [Laughter]

Elizabeth Muller: Maybe we don't actually, but--

Michael Krigsman: You're a startup. You've raised some money. You're looking to raise more money, and your market potential is in the billions, potentially. How much of this is about mission for you and how much of this is about basically the money and starting a business?

Elizabeth Muller: Yeah. The first thing to point out is, the money is really there. This is a place where the American government has done, in some ways, the right thing and have the utilities pay upfront for disposal of nuclear waste. There is a $40 billion nuclear waste fund. A little bit more challenging when you get into the details, but there is this $40 billion fund for the disposal of nuclear waste, and that is what our investors have been interested in.

Initially, when we had the idea, we weren't sure we would do it as a startup company. We thought maybe we would do it as part of our nonprofit, which is what we've been doing together for the past ten years. But, as we looked at it, we realized, no; if you want to do something quickly, and you want to do something big, the way to do it these days is, you know, we want to be the next SpaceX. We want to do something really important that will shake up things. The way to do that it through a startup company.

In terms of the money, I think, personally, our real interest is in solving the nuclear waste problem. That's why we got into this. We've been solving environmental problems for the past ten years. That's our passion. But, in order to do this, we have to show our investors that they can make a 100% return on their investment, and so we are also, I would say, very focused on doing that. Our investors are taking a real chance on something that they believe in, something that we all believe we can do, but that's why we're also being really somewhat hardnosed about the investment side of things.

Michael Krigsman: Tell us about the buyer. Who is the ultimate buyer for your service? Is that the right way [to put it]? It's not really a product, right? I guess it's a service.

Elizabeth Muller: Yeah. On paper, I think the only buyer, really, is the U.S. government. They do have ultimate responsibility for the disposal of nuclear waste. We're not looking to change that. We don't think that a private company can take responsibility for tens of thousands of years.

Richard Muller: Yeah. We are looking at other countries, too.

Elizabeth Muller: Right. We are looking at other countries, but the same thing. It's the government.

But I think that, along the way, there are so many other people that are in some ways a client. There are the individual communities. There are the utilities. There are many different pieces of the puzzle. Even though we say that it's the government that's fundamentally our client, they're not our only client. Even the American public is in some ways our client.

Richard Muller: Yeah, the people. There's real pain on this issue. The communities have pain. The utilities have pain. The government has pain, the regulators. We are trying to really solve that issue.

Michael Krigsman: From an investor standpoint, how do you convince investors? Even though your technology is great, there's so much political headwind to overcome. Let's say that your technology is great, and your solution helps communities avoid moving that nuclear waste across their borders, and so communities like it. But, now you're so deeply involved in the government and the politics. How do you manage that and what do your investors think about that? It just adds so much complexity.

Elizabeth Muller: Yes. About a year and a half ago, we were still primarily a technology company. Our investors came to us, our potential investors, and they said, "We are concerned about the government side. How can we show some progress on the government side?"

For the past year and a half, we have been really focusing on the government side. We've hit some really interesting, important milestones along the way. We're finding support on both sides of the aisle.

Republicans like us because we are cheaper. We are private sector. We are innovative.

Democrats like us because we're providing an alternative for people who don't want nuclear waste in their backyard. We're providing an option, not something that we're going to force people to go with.

We've been finding remarkable progress on the political side, which is not to say we're there yet. I think we still have a lot that needs to be done on the political side, but we've been having conversations at very high levels. There is a lot of support for the work that we're doing, and investors get that. I think that they understand that this conversation is happening at the right time and the right place.

Because Yucca Mountain has been stuck and there is still some support, support for moving Yucca Mountain forward, but it hasn't been able to move forward. We might be able to be part of a compromise that would allow multiple things to move forward at the same time. Any progress in nuclear waste disposal, we think, is genuinely good for everyone involved.

Michael Krigsman: Would it be fair to say that your primary competition is Yucca Mountain?

Elizabeth Muller: We don't see Yucca Mountain as competition because, again, I think any progress on Yucca Mountain would help us as well. We're providing an additional option. There are some places where we could not dispose of the spent nuclear fuel onsite, so Yucca Mountain is needed for some locations.

There are other places where it might be really challenging to get the fuel from where it is all the way to Yucca Mountain with people in between. We don't want it to go through your land. So, I think that we're very complementary. You could say that we're competition, but I don't really see it that way. I see it as the more the better, and we need all the options we can get.

Richard Muller: Yucca Mountain, by law, is limited to 63,000 tons of nuclear waste.

Elizabeth Muller: Spent.

Richard Muller: Of spent nuclear fuel. There is already almost 80,000 tons, so we need more space. I think of us more as a supplement to Yucca Mountain, something that would be very attractive to people, particularly spent nuclear fuel, nuclear waste that's very distant.

Elizabeth Muller: We can also move faster, too, so that's another.

Michael Krigsman: You say Yucca Mountain is limited to by law to 63,000 and yet there is 80,000 tons?

Richard Muller: Almost 80,000, yeah. They have to change the law to allow Yucca Mountain to grow bigger or they could change the law to allow the study of a second repository. We would like to be the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth and seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth.

Michael Krigsman: Tell us about the safety issues and also the economics of it, of your solution.

Richard Muller: In Yucca Mountain, and in almost every facility around the world, you dig deep tunnels. You put people down there, down these tunnels. They put the waste in place.

In our facility, nobody goes underground. We put the waste in capsules that are maybe 8 or 12 inches in diameter, 15 feet long. These capsules are lowered down into these drill holes, deep down, far deeper than anybody else is proposing, and then put horizontally, so they're sitting next to each other. It's spread out, and it's underneath a billion tons of rock, so none of the radiation gets out.

The only thing we have to worry about is that someday these capsules will be corroded, and we can make capsules that will last 10,000 years. When they get corroded, then the geologic barrier is enormous. Water down at this depth, we're way below the aquifer, far below it. Yucca Mountain, for example, is above the aquifer. They worry about that a lot. We are so far below it where the water is essentially immobile, and it just doesn't come to the surface for millions of years, so it's really the safest place to put it.

Michael Krigsman: Now, the economics, and then we have some questions from Twitter.

Elizabeth Muller: Great. The economics, the drilling part is really the cheapest part of everything that we're doing. You can drill a hole that would be a great disposal facility for nuclear waste for a few million dollars in contrast to $100 billion that you're looking at for a massive facility at Yucca Mountain. Now, we would need more than one hole for deep isolation. We're looking at potentially a few hundred holes if we were to do all of the spent nuclear fuel in the United States.

The drilling costs are not a major part. The licensing costs are higher. The process of transferring the waste from the pools into our canisters, those are the things that are going to cost more. But, in any case, we can't figure out any way that what we're doing would cost even half as much as Yucca Mountain.

Michael Krigsman: Again, it's really interesting because, for most startups, they're looking primarily at the economics. In your case, you've handled the economics completely, it sounds like, very thoroughly. The challenge, therefore, reverts back to community acceptance and then, even more importantly, getting the government to do something.

Elizabeth Muller: Yeah, that's right. The economics are overwhelming. I mean the difference in price between drilling a hole that's this wide and going deep versus creating an underground repository with humans underground, it's just night and day.

Richard Muller: The technology, we're not doing anything spectacular with the technology. Being the first ones in this business of putting nuclear waste underground, there are lots of opportunities for intellectual property, so we have been writing out patent applications because nobody else is thinking in this business. That will help with the investment.

We think that the technology and the economics are really the strong points. In fact, when investors say, "Well, I don't know. I mean I know how to evaluate risks in technology. I know how to evaluate risks in economics. You don't have any, but this government stuff. That reminds me of the difficulties of the medical field and getting things approved. I don't know anything about that." That's the kind of reaction we get from a lot of potential investors.

Michael Krigsman: Yeah, that makes sense. Looking at medicine as a sort of analog for the level of regulation and concern over risk.

Richard Muller: Part of the advantage that we have is that the issue is really urgent. This nuclear fuel is accumulating, and it's on the surface in containers that we believe are safe, but the public is deeply worried about it. There are locations that simply refuse to have more surface containers because of what they perceive as the danger. Putting it a mile deep makes them very happy.

Elizabeth Muller: Nor do they want to transport it out.

Richard Muller: Yeah, so I think there is this discomfort. It's in the government too. Government, the regulatory agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is actually a superb commission. It's bipartisan. Three members were just confirmed by the Senate by unanimous vote, so these are really good organizations, but they also want to solve the problem. It's a good time. It's an urgent issue for the government.

Michael Krigsman: We have a couple of questions from Twitter. Gus Bekdash says his nuclear physics may be rusty, but can't we build reactors that recycle and consume the old fuel, so why aren't we just doing that and making the problem go away that way?

Richard Muller: Actually, we are doing that. We're moving ahead really fast. Two points about that: One is, for the foreseeable few hundred years, none of this new technology would burn up all of the fuel that we have. When it does burn it up, what it burns up are the long-lived radioactivity. It burns up the plutonium, which the public really worries about. But, in fact, the waste from these reactors, even though they don't have plutonium, have more short-lived radioactivity, 30 years, strontium and cesium. They're much, much hotter from a radioactive point of view. That is the waste we have now. The getting rid of the waste problem doesn't go away.

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter, which is, Arsalan Khan is asking, "Can't we use nuclear waste for something productive? Eventually, can we do something with it that uses it, since we have so much of it?"

Richard Muller: Parts of it are very productive. We use the americium in medicine a lot. We use it for producing industrial devices that can x-ray metals. There is a lot of it, but nobody has figured out how to use it all. There are parts of it that are just radioactive and very dangerous, and so the bulk of the material.

Every now and then, I'd say, "Is there some way I could take this waste, which gives us all this radiation and use it just as a source of energy?" In principle, you can. But, when you think of the danger associated with it, it makes it impractical to do that.

Michael Krigsman: Fundamentally then, from a technology standpoint, the issue is moving it, getting it away, and storing it so that it will be stable.

Richard Muller: Yeah, this has been looked at. People always have these ideas. Let's send it off to the moon. Let's send it off to the sun and burn it up there. That would be great if you had 100% reliability for your rockets and the thing would never crash.

The significant committees that have looked at this all have come to the conclusion that the right place to put it is deep underground. We're talking about, if you look at the pyramids, they last for thousands of years, but not for millions of years. If you look down underground, you have structures that have been unchanged for 100 million years. This is the place that every major scientific committee that has looked at this in an objective, serious way has concluded this geologic storage is the right way to do it.

How do you do the geology? Do you build tunnels and drifts? Do you put people under there shoving these things down the railroad lines? Or, do you do it remotely with nobody underground in narrow holes which, really, you can recover the fuel from it, but it's a million dollar operation to recover the fuel, and you would take several weeks. It's hard for terrorists to get to. It's very unlikely to be hit be inadvertent intrusion. And, it is safe. This is what every community as concluded.

Michael Krigsman: The accepted scientific wisdom is it needs to be buried and, therefore, the question becomes--or is this the question--what's the most efficient way of doing so that remains effect?

Richard Muller: That's right. What we know about that has changed over the last 30 years.

Elizabeth Muller: The consensus is that it should be deep geologic, right? It needs to be deep. It needs to be in a place where the geology is stable and hasn't changed for a very long time.

Within there, there's quite a bit of flexibility. The Yucca Mountain type of approach is deep geologic. Deep isolation is deep geologic. There is some flexibility in what sort of deep geologic, but the consensus is that's what's necessary.

Richard Muller: Some people have proposed putting it in large salt domes, for example, and there's a facility in New Mexico that does--

Elizabeth Muller: And, vertical boreholes was a previous program.

Richard Muller: Vertical boreholes was by a previous firm, so ideas are still coming around.

Elizabeth Muller: Yeah.

Richard Muller: We think our idea hits all the right notes.

Michael Krigsman: You're confident in your idea because the method of drilling has been developed and refined in the oil and gas industry.

Richard Muller: Well, that's one of the reasons we're confident. But, of course, the real reason we're confident is that we have talked to every expert we can find. They always look at us with a smile of skepticism as we come in, and we say, "We've solved the nuclear waste problem," and we go out with people saying, "This is wonderful. How can I help?"

We know the experts. We know we talked to not every expert in the field, but we've talked to a lot of them and gotten their comments and their thoughts. Often, their thoughts are, "Well, that cool solution will work. Here's my suggestion on how to get it through the government."

Michael Krigsman: Well, let me ask you this. When you say, "Get it through the government," what does that actually mean?

Elizabeth Muller: We've had some clarifications recently, which are really helpful to us. We do know, for example, that a private company working with the Department of Energy can help the Department of Energy submit a license application for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. That was something we just got a response to that a couple of months ago, and it's been a major win for us.

Richard Muller: Response from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Elizabeth Muller: But, there are other issues that still need to be worked through, and we are actively working on those. Yes, it's the government side that is our primary focus right now, I think. There's going to be some talk about this, we think, in the lame-duck session. There's going to be an opportunity to look at some of the laws. There's also an opportunity for the Department of Energy to move forward, should they wish, with some other types of nuclear waste, so we're really looking at all of the above.

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter, again from Arsalan Khan, who is asking another interesting and potentially very politically charged question. He asks, "Is it possible that First World countries like the U.S. would try to move that waste to store it in Third World countries in order to basically get it out of here?"

Richard Muller: I think, even in the U.S., people don't want it transported, even if it's leaving the U.S. They don't want to transport it out of their community. This might have been a fear, but we've done detailed surveys in these states and discovered this fact that the transportation is maybe the biggest issue. Everybody in the business knows it's a big issue, but this is the biggest issue.

I think the issue is quite different. I think many small countries are also worried about their nuclear reactors. In the past, they tend to put the nuclear reactors close to the ocean or water where they can get the needed cooling. But, in the future, perhaps they should make sure that where they put it, there is suitable geology for local disposal. Because we are modular, if you have a country that has one nuclear reactor, you don't have to build a $100 billion facility like Yucca Mountain. You can put in a relatively small facility that would dispose of it right at the location. So, our approach is really very attractive to the developing world.

Michael Krigsman: Where are you now as far as trying to convince the government, and what are the kind of intermediate milestone success metrics that you look at?

Elizabeth Muller: Yeah, so I would say we're making really great progress. We were in stealth mode up until March of this year, so we weren't talking about what we were doing really to anybody. It's only been, really, in the past six months that we have started having these open conversations. We started talking to the public, started talking to environmental groups, and we're making great progress.

We did get the response back to the query from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is tremendously helpful for us. We expect that we will have more clarifications over the coming months. We're not being public about talking about what exactly we're doing because we don't know exactly what sorts of things we're going to find.

Richard Muller: Let me just say, we have people who have been talking to the important congressional committees. We've been in deep discussions with key people in the Department of Energy. We have met, Elizabeth and I have met, with the top staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

We are deeply engaged in the government. What we're finding are a lot of people there who would like to help us solve this problem, but they have to do it within the limitations of the law. The laws were written 30 years ago when people just wanted everybody to -- Yucca Mountain was the solution, and so let's stop arguing over it, and let's just write that into law.

Elizabeth Muller: Yes.

Richard Muller: Now, it's been held back. It's been very slow. Most people believe it will be a decade or decades before waste is actually put there. And so, it's a problem, and now you have the laws.

What we would like to do is to find a solution and a way to get the company moving even without changing the laws. But, the laws are changing and the people in Congress all are trying to change the laws. And so, we are in contact with them and trying to help them.

Michael Krigsman: The folks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission seem positively disposed towards and willing to have conversations with you.

Elizabeth Muller: I'm not sure I would go that far. I think the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is looking at how best to implement existing regulations. That's their job. The question is, to the extent that we have clarifications that are necessary, they've been helpful and responsive. But, when it comes to changing the laws, well, that's not the NRC. That's the legislature. When it comes to who is actually going to be in charge, that's the Department of Energy.

Michael Krigsman: How do you navigate all of this? The landscape that you're describing, the regulatory landscape, is just so complex.

Elizabeth Muller: It's been a real learning experience. I was completely naïve. I still consider myself quite naïve when it comes to government and politics. But, our very first employee, Sam Brinton, is a government affairs expert. He's been with us now for a year and a half. Yeah, about a year and a half now.

Richard Muller: Yeah. Yeah.

Elizabeth Muller: We recognize that that wasn't our space, but this needs to be the space of our company. If you look at the people that we've been hiring, I think it reflects that.

Richard Muller: Yeah, these are people who really see this as a really important--not just national, it's an international--problem that started in the U.S. Many of these people have been in this space for a long time. We are really pleased that when we talk to them, they jump on board and say, "Yes, we want to be part of this. We can help."

Although Elizabeth and I don't have experience, she has a great deal of experience in stakeholder engagement, in community issues, even in government stakeholder engagement. My background is mostly background. But, we've been bringing in people who are world-class experts on these issues. I think that's really why we have made so much progress.

Michael Krigsman: It's interesting that you recognized pretty early on that the technology solution in and of itself is only, you said, a third, roughly, of the ultimate criteria for success.

Richard Muller: Yeah, we were told that by almost everybody that we spoke to after we sent them the technology. It was a lesson we learned very early.

Elizabeth Muller: It's also something that comes from our background, right? With Berkeley Earth, our nonprofit, we've always believed in the importance of not just doing something that you think can be done, but in two-way communication and in designing it in such a way that it fits not only the technical side, but also the public perception issues, the community side, the environmental side. That's something that we have built in, I would say, from day one to our approach, which is very different from the way that nuclear waste has been handled in the past.

Michael Krigsman: Usually, it's been dictated centrally from some government.

Elizabeth Muller: Yeah, it's a challenge, right? Knowing how to communicate with people in a way that actually incorporates what they say is a challenging thing to do. I don't even say most nuclear waste efforts; I think most companies don't really do a good job with that.

Richard Muller: Yeah. Elizabeth has a background in doing this in many countries around the world, and most of what I know on this subject I've learned from her. She always says, when you get into a new group, you say a few words and then you start listening. You listen intently, and you listen to see how this could possibly affect what we are doing.

Elizabeth Muller: You learn.

Richard Muller: People notice when you listen.

Elizabeth Muller: Yeah.

Richard Muller: This the first step in such an engagement process. It's remarkably effective. We've even approached some environmental groups that we expected would be staunchly opposed to us, and we listen to what they say.

Elizabeth Muller: They're grateful for that. They're not coming out and supporting what we're doing, necessarily, either, but they are having that conversation with us, and I think they're open to continuing that conversation.

Michael Krigsman: It makes sense, especially with such a charged issue such as nuclear waste disposal and its transportation. As we finish up, what advice have you got or what would you like to say to policymakers and to regulators about this set of issues?

Elizabeth Muller: I think this is a really exciting opportunity. We can solve the nuclear waste problem. We don't need to push this off to future generations. We don't need to get caught up into this 1980s battle of what we thought could be done back in the 1980s.

There is an opportunity here to move forward, to move forward quickly, to do it in an inexpensive and modular way that really makes sense not for everybody, so we're not saying this is the only solution out there. We're just creating a new option that some people, some communities, some utilities, some sites may choose while others may choose something else.

Richard Muller: You could be part of the solution. This could be part of your legacy. It's something you will be very proud of when you talk to your children and grandchildren.

Michael Krigsman: As you said, nuclear waste continues to accumulate, so we're going to have to do something at some time. Okay. Well, what a very fast conversation this has been. We've been speaking with Elizabeth and Richard Muller, who are the co-founders of Deep Isolation, which has technology that changes the way nuclear waste is disposed, and they're working through the community issues and especially the government issues to try to bring their solution to market. Liz and Richard, thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today.

Richard Muller: Thank you also.

Elizabeth Muller: Thank you, Michael.

Michael Krigsman: You have been watching Episode #302 of CXOTalk. Right this second, please, please do subscribe on YouTube and tell everybody you know. We have amazing shows coming up, and there are lots of great videos if you go to Thanks so much, everybody, and I hope you have a great day. Bye-bye.

Published Date: Aug 24, 2018

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 539