Today's guest is Elizabeth Muller, Co-Founder & CEO of Deep Isolation. Deep Isolation is a startup, providing a safe and permanent solution for nuclear waste disposal. Applying the technology and methods of directional drilling, the company offers a way to store waste deep below the earth in a way that better safeguards the biosphere, water resources and nearby communities. Prior to founding Deep Isolation, Elizabeth was the 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. This is a fascinating discussion in which we delve into the decades-long problem of nuclear waste, its many important considerations, and Deep Isolation’s innovative solution. I think you’ll be intrigued by all that we discuss. Enjoy the show! You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at email@example.com, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
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Jason Jacobs: Hello everyone. This is Jason Jacobs and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Today's guest is Elizabeth Muller, Co-Founder and CEO of Deep Isolation.
A startup company providing a safe and permanent solution for nuclear waste disposal. She's 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.
This is a fascinating discussion in that nuclear waste is a hot button topic of course, and Deep Isolation is bringing this new and innovative solution. Well, we talk about how big a problem is nuclear waste, really. What's the perspective of the people from within nuclear industry? What's the perspective from the different environmental groups?
How is Deep Isolation solution different and better than other solutions that exist where Yucca Mountain fits into the picture, what it will take to get Deep Isolation's technology to life, and also how it fits in to the climate fight.
Elizabeth Mueller, welcome to the show.
Elizabeth Muller: Thank you, Jason.
Jason Jacobs: I'm excited for this one. I have done some travels in looking at nuclear from all different angles, from people that work on nuclear to people that are against nuclear, et cetera. And I think one thing that's come up a bunch is just nuclear waste and how to think about that. And so when I was introduced to you and heard a little bit about what you're doing with Deep Isolation. That seems like an area that I needed to dive a lot more deeply into and understands when thrilled that you agreed to come on the show.
Elizabeth Muller: Yeah. Well, likewise. I'm looking forward to the conversation.
Jason Jacobs: So maybe we'll just take it from the top. What is Deep Isolation?
Elizabeth Muller: So Deep Isolation is fundamentally we're a company. We are looking to change the way that people think about nuclear waste disposal. Nuclear waste disposal has, has been a problem for 50 years or more, depending on where you're looking. And for a very long time, it's been something that people consider as a problem for the next generations. So we're not going to deal with the nuclear waste problem now; we're going to kick the can down the road. Somebody else will deal with it some day, and obviously that hasn't been a tremendously effective approach. No country anywhere in the world has ever successfully disposed of spent nuclear fuel or high level nuclear waste. People are increasingly upset with the status quo, which is sticking it in temporary places and saying that we'll solve it someday somewhere. I should let know that there are a few countries that are making active progress towards solutions, though the majority aren't even making progress.
Jason Jacobs: And so how did Deep Isolation come to be? When did Deep Isolation come to be? What's kind of a founding story of the company?
Elizabeth Muller: So Deep Isolation is about four years old now. We grew out of an environmental profit that me and my co founder had been running for the past 10 years by the name of Berkeley Earth.
Jason Jacobs: Environmental nonprofit, right?
Elizabeth Muller: Environmental nonprofit. That's right. So Berkeley Earth looks at big environmental problems.
We looked at global warming, we looked at air pollution, and then this nuclear waste issue has been something that we decided to create as a separate company, not do through Berkeley Earth because we thought we could do more as a private company than we could as either a government program or as a nonprofit.
So Deep Isolation is looking to solve the nuclear waste problem and perhaps the most remarkable things that we think we can solve the nuclear waste problem. This is because we have a couple of innovations, which are, I would say, desperately needed in the field. So one is new technology, and by new, what I actually mean is existing technology that we are applying in a new way. So we are using directional drilling, which has been perfected over the past 20 years, and using it to drill down, it could be one kilometer or two kilometers, four kilometers deep, depending on the geology of where you're going. And then you go horizontally for, again, as long as you want to really and up to two, two miles in length, and that's where you put the waste in the horizontal section.
And this is a way of getting it out of the temporary storage. It's a way of getting it out of the biosphere and making sure that it is very safe for a a million years or longer. But the other part of what Deep Isolation is doing, which is, perhaps, just as important as the innovation in technology is the innovation in our approach and nuclear waste has not been an area where there has been effective communication or effective building of partnerships.
Many communities are not happy with the fact that they are stuck with nuclear waste in their backyard that they were told would be taken away. We are creating an open and transparent process of working with communities to help themselves their problem. And if it's not going to be win-win, then we wouldn't have the conversation.
Jason Jacobs: And how did this all come about? And maybe. I mean, when we talked a little bit on the phone before we did the episode, you told me a fascinating story about your dad, who's also your cofounder and how he came to be focused on climate change as a problem area, but it'd be great to hear maybe a bit about that, if you're okay talking about it, but also about how the dots have been connected from, from kind of that transition to what you're doing today.
Elizabeth Muller: We were looking at big environmental problems. We did a massive study of global temperature records, looking at all of the data from around the world. This was back, I think we started, gosh, it was about 10 years ago now, so it must've been in around 2009 when there was still quite a bit of controversy over global temperature records, and why weren't the government organizations sharing the data? Why weren't they using all the data? Why were the, the records were incomplete. Berkeley Earth went in and did a completely fresh approach. We use almost all of the data as opposed to the only 20% of the data that had been used previously.
Um, hands off, our programs are all online. It's fully transparent. You can go in and see what we did. So that was most of the work that we did on global warming. We also, more recently started a major effort on, uh, air pollution. And in particular thinking about, so Berkeley Earth has a fantastic database right now of our legal air pollution around the world.
So you can go to our website or BerkelyEarth.org and you can see what the air pollution is like in your, in your city and your community. And you can also see the historical record of what it's been. Since we started collecting data. So global warming, air pollution, both of them were also related to an effort that we were looking at to reduce air pollution and global warming in China.
And this led us to think about directional drilling, which is what eventually led us to be in the right place and the right time when we started thinking about nuclear waste disposal.
Jason Jacobs: And so when did yoU.S.tart thinking about nuclear waste disposal and then what was the first thing that you did when you transition from thinking to doing?
Elizabeth Muller: So, nuclear waste disposal is one of the big unsolved environmental problems, and it's been around as a problem for 50 years, really. And we were thinking about that, but we were only thinking about it until we heard about something that was called borehole disposal for nuclear waste. And given what we knew about directional drilling, the minute we heard borehole disposal of nuclear waste we, and by we I would really mean my cofounder Rich, had an immediate vision of, wow, that is a fantastically safe way to put, to put the waste you, you drill down, you go horizontally. We know a lot about rock at depth. We know that if you can show that the rock has been isolated for millions of years, then that is a great safety case or a starting point for developing the safety case.
The amazing thing is that he and I have a very complimentary set of skills, so he is a physicist. He has a background in nuclear physics as well as geology and understanding many of the issues that we're going to be dealing with as we do drilling. My background is in business, but it's also in stakeholder engagement and communications.
So when you talk about nuclear waste, this is absolutely essential and just as important as the technology and the fact that the two of us were together, able to think about this problem really is what led has led to the success of Deep Isolation to date.
Jason Jacobs: And so when were you thinking about it, and then when did you transition from thinking to doing and what was the first step that you took when it came to actually breaking ground and starting a business?
Elizabeth Muller: We started thinking about it in all of 2015 our initial thought was, well, maybe we we take out a patent time on the idea. And so we actually submitted our first patent application in the fall of 2015 and then started thinking about whether it made sense to build a company, whether we want to to raise investment in early 2016 we actually registered as a company in summer of 2016.
Jason Jacobs: So the thing that you were filing patents around and stuff, was that around the drilling technology or what was the aspect that you thought was differentiated?
Elizabeth Muller: Yeah. So it's the idea of using directional drilling technology for nuclear waste disposal. And in particular, the first patent was on looking at impermeable layers and how if you go down deep enough, then you can find areas of rock that are impermeable, meaning nothing can get through them. And those as being a great location for nuclear waste disposal. Since then, we've, we've had some other ideas that are just as important. We're actually up to over 30 patents pending and issued. Five of them have issued now, so the detail has really grown since then. But the core idea of disposing of nuclear waste and horizontal drill holes in rock that has been isolated for millions and millions of years is new.
Jason Jacobs: So that was 2015 so this is 2019 so I guess what's the state of the company today? What progress have you made and what have been some of the key learnings since you initially broke ground and got started?
Elizabeth Muller: Our progress, it started out slow. People kept telling us, you're crazy to get into the nuclear waste business. Nothing ever happens in nuclear waste, but we didn't listen. We kept plodding along, and in the past two years really is when most of the movement has taken place. So in earlier this year, we did a demonstration. We demonstrated the technology at a site out in Texas. We showed that not only could we do this, and so we in placed a canister that didn't have any nuclear waste in it, but a mock canister into a horizontal drill hole.
We left it there, we pulled our equipment back out. We then went back in and we relatched and pulled it back out at the end. And that showed something that was important for the nuclear industry, which is that something that you put into a borehole can be retrieved. And at the time. In the nuclear industry there were questions around that. In the oil and gas and drilling industry, everyone knows that you can retrieve things, but it hasn't been demonstrated for nuclear waste.
Jason Jacobs: Why is that important? If it's, if it's so far underground in, in something that hasn't been touched for a million years, then what's an example of a scenario where one might need to retrieve it or want to?
Elizabeth Muller: So a couple of scenarios. First scenario is you're not going to want to, but it's nice to have the backup option in case you do want to. So that means that somebody who's not comfortable with permanent disposal, a community say, could try it out for 20 years, get comfortable with the idea, and then if they are comfortable with leaving it there, they can then plug it up and call it disposal.
And if they're not, then they can send it somewhere else. So this, this allows us, first of all, to be considered not just for permanent disposal, but also for what we call interim storage. So temporary storage of the nuclear waste. It is actually a requirement that even for a permanent disposal in the United States, it does have to be retrievable for up to 50 years.
And I think that's because we don't want to take options off the table. And we don't know what future technological developments might be. So it's nice to know that we have the option of retrieving it and putting it somewhere else if a new option becomes available.
Jason Jacobs: And what's the advantage of storing it so far underground for temporary storage versus just the cast where it is today?
Elizabeth Muller: So in the cast, it's meant it's, it's quite literally temporary storage, so it's meant to be there for 20 years or so. The challenge with that is that while there is no disposal solution, is it really going to be removed after 20 years, or is it going to stay there for 50, 60, 100, 200 hundred years? Very few people think that this is a good solution for permanent disposal.
It's on the surface. It's in the biosphere. There's interaction between the waste and the environment. Not really meant for longterm. You also, while that's on the surface, you have to protect it. You have to have guards and guns and make sure that it's safe for issues like terrorism, earthquakes, water events.
Here's your, you're above the water table. So there's really quite a few reasons that people don't think that interim storage and dry casks is a good permanent solution.
Jason Jacobs: Well, I am far from an expert, but the people that I've talked to, at least the ones that are in the nuclear industry, I mean, the impression I get from them is that the waste issue is kind of overblown and that it's not really an issue.
Do you find that, I mean, am I misguided in hearing that that's their mindset or does that in fact their mindset and, and I guess either way, whether it is or it isn't, like what's your perspective on how the nuclear industry is thinking about this?
Elizabeth Muller: So I think it's, it's really a, not so much an issue of is it technically safe?
I think that it's probably pretty safe for the short term, but it's not something that people have consented to. And so the agreement, and again, this will depend a little bit on the location that you're looking at, but typically in the United States, the community who is near the nuclear power plant had an agreement that that nuclear waste would be gone safely out of their community by 1998 and that hasn't happened.
And so now you're forcing a community that never consented to have the nuclear waste in their community to keep it on the surface in the biosphere, in a solution that nobody thinks is safe for the long term, and yet they're keeping it there while we don't have a solution for the long term. So I think there is a fear that this temporary storage isn't going to be temporary, that it's going to become permanent.
And I think that that is where some of the fear is is coming from. So you have your two people really talking different things. You have technical experts who say it's reasonably safe where it is right now, and I think I would probably agree with that. But then on the other hand, you have people who said, well, I don't want it in my community.
I never agreed to have it in my community. I don't want it there. And yet they're stuck with no other options.
Jason Jacobs: So if I'm hearing you right, then it's, this is less of a safety problem that you're solving and more of a consent problem.
Elizabeth Muller: I think it's a consent problem. And then it's also a timeframe problem.
So even though I would argue that it's safe right now, as yoU.S.tart going into longer and longer horizons, I think nobody really agrees that this is a good permanent solution for nuclear waste.
Jason Jacobs: And so Yucca Mountain. I mean, I know that those plans are on hold, but if those plans had moved forward, where would that storage solution have sat relative to Deep Isolation and relative to casks?
I know geographically where it would have been, but what about, I mean, is an underground is it in cast? Is it, is it deep underground? Like what, what, what was the Yucca Mountain options?
Elizabeth Muller: So Yucca Mountain is meant to be permanent disposal. It is deep underground. It's not as deep as Deep Isolation would go.
It is actually above the water table still. So there have been some concerns raised about how Yucca Mountain will manage the fact that it is above the water table. There still interaction with the biosphere and the experts who have developed, who've been working on Yucca Mountain have developed answers to those questions, which some people agree with, other people may disagree with, but generally it's about a combination between geologic barriers and engineered barriers, which are necessary because the geologic barriers are not sufficient on their own.
Jason Jacobs: Or you mentioned some people think doesn't need it. Some people think that. What's your evaluation of, of the Yucca Mountain solution and its viability? I know it has political headwinds and that's a separate issue, but I'm just talking from a technical and safety standpoint?
Elizabeth Muller: We're neutral on Yucca Mountain. I think Yucca Mountain, whether or not it moves forward, there's still going to be types of waste. There's still gonna be opportunities for Deep Isolation to to coexist. So there is a massive nuclear waste problem. I think that what we really need are options, and I think it's more important to add things, to put things on the table than it is to take things off the table.
Jason Jacobs: I think I heard yoU.S.ay in another interview that with Yucca Mountain, one of the disadvantages is that because it's so big, it's an exorbitant cost. Is that correct?
Elizabeth Muller: Yeah, so official estimates are $100 billion for Yucca Mountain.
Jason Jacobs: Why not then have a more distributed solution that looks like Yucca Mountain in terms of depth and safety, but is smaller and more compartmentalized for the different regions that are producing the waste without going all the way deep dive?
I guess what I'm asking is why is it necessary to go so deep? If you're neutral and you come out and it seems like it's sufficient?
Elizabeth Muller: So there's a lot of advantages for going deeper. First of all, the additional cost is not significant. So if you're talking about directional drilling, which is what we're doing, then you're not putting humans underground.
And so once you're not putting humans underground, then you can go significantly deeper, while at the same time minimizing safety issues and minimizing costs. There are significant advantages for going deeper. So first of all, it makes the safety case much stronger. So, so Deep Isolation, for example, we can add engineered barriers and we will add engineered barriers.
But even if there were new engineered barriers, we are disposing in a layer of rock that is so isolated from the surface that there is no chance of interaction with the biosphere so that that makes our licensing process earlier. It makes it easier. It makes the safety case easier. It makes it easier, I think, also for people to believe in our solution and to really understand why it will work and be confident that it will work.
Jason Jacobs: So you mentioned that you recently did a demonstration. I think I also saw, I think it was fairly recently, that there was a Bechtel partnership. Is that correct?
Elizabeth Muller: Yeah. This is sort of coming back to the acceleration in the past year or two. So we did a demonstration in January this past summer. We signed an agreement with Bechtel and together, I think the two have been really important in terms of getting people to take us seriously.
So when you're talking about nuclear waste disposal, you are talking about a massive undertaking. You're talking about on average, we're talking about $1 billion to dispose of the waste from a reactor. So that's sort of what's been budgeted for and associated with the cost of disposal. So this is not your typical startup company area of work.
This is a massive and very important area to be in. Now, Bechtel allows people to take us much more seriously. So we are no longer a startup company with a new idea. We are now startup company with a new idea working with Bechtel, which is a very established, very conservative, extremely respected company, working together to deliver a joint solution.
Jason Jacobs: And what is the nature of that relationship? What are you doing together and who's doing what?
Elizabeth Muller: Bechtel is doing a lot of the nuclear handling work. There's been a lot of expertise developed in this area recently. We also partner with NAC who also has expertise in that area. Bechtel is great when it comes to construction.
They're great when it comes to management of massive projects. Deep Isolation, what we bring is the innovation. We are very good at talking to communities, working with stakeholders, working with environmental groups, not just at talking to them, but actually incorporating their ideas and and building partnerships.
So together with Deep Isolation and our partners, we really cover everything that is needed to get this done effectively.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. And so is it then envisioned that if Bechtel takes on work with, say a nuclear plant or a utility that has a fleet of nuclear plants, and then in addition to whatever work they're doing in terms of building those plants or maintaining those plants, then they would also be handling the waste and that would be powered by Deep Isolation. Is that correct?
Elizabeth Muller: That's sort of it. I mean, it's a little bit more complicated because the U.S. government actually has responsibility for disposing of waste, so that won't change with Deep Isolation and Bechtel. So the utility produces the waste. They're typically in charge of the temporary storage of it, but as soon as it gets ready for disposal now as the U.S. government, and that's for good reason, you're talking about something that's going to be dangerous for a million years.
So no private company can really take on that kind of responsibility. You might argue that even the U.S. government, it's not clear that they can take on that kind of responsibility, but they're certainly better placed for it than anyone else. So when yoU.S.tart thinking about these issues of disposal, you have to show that your solution is going to be safe for 10,000 to a million years or longer.
Now that is something that we would expect to work with the U.S. government to do. So we have our basic safety case. But we would need to go through the nuclear regulatory commission in order to get it licensed. So the U.S. government already has a set of environmental and safety standards that they would require that any solution meet.
We would help the U.S. government show that this solution meets those requirements and then working with them. U.S. government could then dispose of the waste.
Jason Jacobs: And then the nature of the Bechtel relationship is that, is it Bechtel working with the U.S. government and you are powering Bechtel's waste component of that solution?
Or where does Bechtel fit into the picture between you and the government?
Elizabeth Muller: So I think it could go a number of different ways. I think that what is really important is that Deep Isolation. We do need to have the quality assurance, we need to have the stakeholder engagement role, and we have, of course, the fundamental idea and the intellectual property.
Bechtel does have existing relationships with the government at a number of sites. So that is something that we can draw on. Depending on the specifics, it could be a joint contract, it could be one of us working as prime, or it could be some combination of the two.
Jason Jacobs: I think I heard yoU.S.ay in another interview that the government is your primary, or is it your sole customer would be governments. Is that true?
Elizabeth Muller: That's mostly true. I think as long as we're looking at nuclear waste disposal in the countries that we've looked at so far, essentially the governments are our customers. Now there's a little bit of a gray zone in some places where utilities, maybe state owned utilities are actually the customers.
There is a slightly different opportunity if you're talking about interim storage. So I mentioned that earlier, that we could actually call it interim storage, do it for 20 to 40 years. If we're doing interim storage, then our customers are utilities typically.
Jason Jacobs: So if Deep Isolation didn't exist, what would the governance plan be for waste and how urgently are they trying to figure this out?
Elizabeth Muller: So it depends on the government, but. Yucca Mountain is still the law of the land in the United States. Obviously there hasn't been a lot of progress towards Yucca Mountain in the past 10 years. Even before then it wasn't moving forward as quickly as expected, but that is currently the only option on the table in the United States.
If you look at other governments around the world, it varies. There are a few governments that are making progress. The Finns and the Swedes being among that, they are looking at a variation of a mine repository. So it is similar in some ways to Yucca Mountain. It's somewhat different. They are going deeper and below the water table, but fundamentally mining out a large repository and then putting people down there and it is extremely expensive.
Jason Jacobs: How are you thinking about prioritization in terms of which governments to go after? Where do you think the fruit is the ripest?
Elizabeth Muller: So we have a bunch of conversations that are ongoing. I think it's a combination of really important places where there is an active nuclear waste problem. So people are demanding a solution.
They're not happy with the idea of not doing anything, and there is some urgency. There are a number of countries around the world where for whatever reason they haven't been able to do dry cask storage. The communities haven't accepted it. They are not moving forward and people are demanding that we have a disposal solution before they put it into temporary because they don't believe that it's only going to be temporary if there isn't a solution.
So there's, there's a number of countries that have some urgency. There's a number of other countries that may not have the same urgency, but have much of the waste. So we are talking with a bunch of those as well. So it's a combination of what we see as earlier opportunities and bigger opportunities that may be in slower moving markets.
Jason Jacobs: So we talked about casks and we talked about Yucca Mountain, but that's just what the U.S. centric view. If you look globally, what other types of solutions are there for ways other than those two?
Elizabeth Muller: So there's casks, there's mine repositories, which are similar to Yucca Mountain, and there's also been a number of countries that are looking at vertical boreholes.
There are still a handful of countries that are actively looking at vertical boreholes. There are others that have dismissed vertical boreholes because . It does have some challenges that we think are addressed by going horizontally so that that is out there though in the mix.
Jason Jacobs: And in order for this to happen, is it, I guess it depends on on which country and what the regulatory landscape looks like in, in that country, but I guess like what's the first thing to drop?
Is it, is it regulatory approval? I guess? How are you thinking about going to market.
Elizabeth Muller: So this is a long process and rightly so, because you need to prove safety at every stage within it. So we're looking at as a first stage what we're calling a foundation study. So this is where you look at the geology.
You look at the specific waste form, you look at where it is now, you do a feasibility study, you look at cost benefit analysis to Deep Isolation compared to other options. So this is mostly a desk-based piece of work, six months, 12 months, something in that realm. If what you come out with at the end is that Deep Isolation is a safer, more cost effective solution, then you can move into the next stage, which is really an operational readiness program.
So you would want to drill a hole just to verify that the geology is what you expect it to be and that it is truly isolated at depth from the biosphere. And of course, throughout this entire process, and you're also talking to the local people. So you're talking to the communities, you're moving forward with the citing process, and that's happening in parallel with the, with the technical work.
So then if you have the, if you, if you drilled the hole and everything looks good, if you have a community that's interested, then you begin the licensing process, or yoU.S.how that you can meet the safety and environmental requirements. And even that will probably take two years or so before you then begin with disposal.
Jason Jacobs: Are these, and I guess again, it depends country to country, but at least in the U.S. are these decisions, I mean, is this more of a federal decision?
Elizabeth Muller: In the U.S., it is a federal decision.
Jason Jacobs: So if it's a federal decision, I know this is just specific to the U.S. and it might be different in in other places, but take the U.S. where it is a federal decision. Is the community input less important in that scenario? I mean, I know it's nice to have the community buy in and stuff, but I mean, couldn't the government just mandate, I'm not suggesting they should, but why? Why does the community buy in matters so much, if it's a federal decision?
Elizabeth Muller: So, I mean, you take the example of Yucca Mountain and the U.S. government decided it was going to be Yucca Mountain.
And yet you look at the reasons that it hasn't moved forward. And one of the big reasons is that the people of Nevada don't want it in their state. And so even though technically in the United States, this is a federal decision, you know this and other reasons that nuclear waste haven't moved forward.
Is because it's really hard to do something against the will of the people who live there. I mean, not, not to mention that it's wrong, but even if you did say, we have the power to do this, we don't care what other people think, it's going to be really hard to do. And so by flipping that and by saying we want the full consent of the community before we even seriously begin work.
Well then you're, you're removing one of the biggest obstacles to actually disposing of anything.
Jason Jacobs: And just from a logistical standpoint, I mean, I know you mentioned 2015 the company started, so I mean today, how many employees, what types of skill sets on the team? How much capital have you raised? Just maybe kind of a quick snapshot so we can get an order of magnitude on what the company itself looks like.
Elizabeth Muller: Yeah. So we've raised 14 million so far. All of that has been from individual investors, so we've not yet had a Series A or an institutional lead round. We are getting ready for that now, so I expect an early 2020 as we sign our first contracts, we will be kicking off a Series A round.
Jason Jacobs: And so 14 million from individuals.
That's a lot to come from individuals. If there was a theme or a handful of themes, like why are those individuals writing those checks? What are they hoping to get out of being involved in Deep Isolation? What's the pitch?
Elizabeth Muller: I think the one thing that everybody has in common who's invested in us is first of all, they understand that there is a problem and second of all, they understand that we can actually solve this problem.
It's a opportunity for investors to do something that is genuinely important for the world and also to, to make a fantastic return on their investment. I mean, this is globally a $500 billion market that doesn't have much going on. So I think our investors, they appreciate the importance, the environmental importance of getting this done, and they like the return on investment.
Jason Jacobs: And then what does the team look like today, both in terms of head count and skills on the full time team?
Elizabeth Muller: So we're about 20 people now, and we have a technical team, and we have a stakeholder engagement team, and we have a sighting team, we have a international sales team, and then some communications and marketing and finance, et cetera.
Jason Jacobs: And how are you thinking about that series a in terms of. And also even beyond that, I mean, how much capital does a business like this need, the scale, and also what's the best asset class for that capital to come from?
Elizabeth Muller: So we're looking to raise about 20 million, which will be to grow our existing sales pipeline and also to move our initial sales from these foundation studies into operational readiness and disposal.
These initial contracts that we're having are all really more on the consulting side and we need to be able to move those along. It's mostly sales and and growth that we're looking at, which is pretty exciting. It's an exciting place to be. We weren't sure initially if we were only gonna have one customer by 2020 but even though we haven't signed any official contracts yet, I think we are confident enough with a half dozen potential customers, then it feels like we have, we have the traction that we need in order to start really expanding sales. So that's what we're looking at for our service.
Jason Jacobs: And do you expect it, is it also going to be these kind of mission aligned individuals for that round as well?
Elizabeth Muller: We're looking for institutional capital.
At this point, we're focusing on venture capital and strategic investors. We think that there is very strong alignment with people both in the nuclear sector and also in drilling. And at the same time, I think there is some real advantage of working with venture capital companies who are very familiar with growing and scaling small startup companies.
Jason Jacobs: It'd be great to just maybe just do a quick hop through some of the key stakeholders and what they think about Deep Isolation. So, so we mentioned the kind of the residents in these communities and how that's an important area and how they feel that they've been burned before and that hopefully through education they can come to believe that this is a better way.
What about the environmental groups, for example, how much engagement you have with them, how important are they and what do they think about Deep Isolation?
Elizabeth Muller: So environmental groups, I would say are absolutely essential and they have been too long ignored or only brought in at the last minute. So we reached out to every major environmental group who has any sort of interest in nuclear waste before we even had a website.
So I'm, I'm talking about two years ago and we did this because we wanted to listen to them and to see what sort of good ideas they had and what were their concerns about waste and what should we be doing and what shouldn't we be doing. And so we've now had a two year long conversation, and I should be totally clear that not all of them took our call. So we have not been talking to all environmental groups, but we have reached out to all of them and we're continuing to talk to those who are willing to talk to us.
Jason Jacobs: And the ones that don't. Why do you think that is?
Elizabeth Muller: I think there has been a lot of, there's been a lot of negative interactions between environmental groups and both the government and the nuclear industry.
I think there's not a lot of trust. I think that there has not been transparency and there hasn't been good communication. We have an advantage being new. I think it helps that our environmental background from Berkeley Earth, we are not just a big nuclear company coming in, and I think it helps that we haven't had any investment from institutions.
I mean, just to be completely blunt, I think that we come in as an independent group that has been funded from individuals who care makes it easier for people to talk to us than if we had been born out of a big nuclear group or the government.
Jason Jacobs: And what about the nuclear industry itself? How much interaction do you have with them and what do they think about Deep Isolation?
Elizabeth Muller: We've been getting to know the nuclear industry, so I am personally an outsider to the nuclear industry, or a newcomer, I should say, to the nuclear industry. But we have been hiring people who are in the nuclear industry. So this has been an area where we're really trying to combine two cultures. So there we're trying to have a startup mindset.
We can, we can move quickly. We can do things the right way. We can involve the environmental groups and have good stakeholder engagement, and we need to build on the deep experience of the nuclear industry when it comes to nuclear waste handling and all of the sorts of operations that they have developed over the past 50 years.
Jason Jacobs: How does the nuclear industry, if they could wave their magic wand, and I'm sure there's not consensus, but just if there is a majority, what does the majority of the nuclear industry want in terms of how we should be handled?
Elizabeth Muller: I think they want it to be disposed of. That I think is a consensus. Everyone agrees that we need to be responsible.
We need to dispose of the nuclear waste. I think there's a lot of frustration that it hasn't happened yet. I mean, we've been talking to people who've spent their entire careers trying to solve the and I'm talking about 50 year careers trying to solve the nuclear waste problem and not seeing a lot of progress.
I think that initially when we first formed our company that led to a lot of skepticism. You can't possibly do this. We, we've been in this industry for 50 years and nothing ever happens, but I think within the past 18 months or so, that has changed and we're now seeing people say, this is exciting. You guys are actually moving forward.
You're making far more progress than I ever would have thought possible. What can I do to help? And that's been fantastic. Seeing people move from a sort of hopelessness to, okay, this is real. Let's, let's make it happen. That's been very exciting.
Jason Jacobs: I've heard you kind of referenced a few times in this discussion so far, just mission align and how it's about the mission and what really is driving you and the team around solving this problem?
What does success look like and why is this the right problem for you to devote your time to?
Elizabeth Muller: You know, I think this is really a, it's a combination of being in the right place at the right time with the right mix of people. And I think that, you know, our goal is to fundamentally solve the nuclear waste problem and to do it in a reasonable timeframe.
So we're not talking about solving the nuclear waste problem in 20, 30, 40, 50 years or longer. We're talking about doing it in five to 10.
Jason Jacobs: And what would that unlock though? We want to solve the nuclear waste problem because....
Elizabeth Muller: Because it's a problem as it is. So I will say that there are people who say that they want to solve the nuclear waste problem because it could unlock the future of nuclear power.
That's fine. People can believe that. As a company, we believe that the nuclear waste problem is simply a problem. Communities around the world are not happy with the status quo. It is not considered a safe location for permanent disposal. And now it's costing billions of of dollars a year to continue to maintain it in these interim storage temporary solutions, while not advancing a permanent solution.
Jason Jacobs: So would you be upset if solving this problem remove the blocker to help accelerate the adoption of nuclear power?
Elizabeth Muller: I don't think the acceleration of nuclear power is dependent on removing the nuclear waste problem. I think that the two are independent and we want to solve the nuclear waste problem because it's a problem that needs to be solved.
Jason Jacobs: But hypothetically, if it were to help accelerate, would that be a good thing?
Elizabeth Muller: Some people say it would be a good thing. Some people's would say it was a bad thing. We're not taking a position on the future of nuclear power.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. So it's not that your supporter, and it's not that you're against it, you're just as a company, at least you're neutral.
Elizabeth Muller: That's right. We have employees who feel differently. I mean, we have some employees who are firm believers in the future of nuclear power. We have other employees who are not. And so this neutrality is important to us.
Jason Jacobs: And where does climate change fit into your thinking and motivation here, if at all?
Elizabeth Muller: So again, from a company perspective, there is an environmental problem that needs to be solved.
The environmental problem is the nuclear waste problem. Like I said earlier, there may be some people who link that to the future of nuclear power and that being something that they can link to climate change, but that's not something that we do as a company.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. So you're not a climate focus business at all, you're just a a waste disposal company.
Elizabeth Muller: We are, yes. An environmental cleanup disposal company. That's right.
Jason Jacobs: If one thing could change to unlock the trajectory to, to solve this problem faster, what would it be?
Elizabeth Muller: It's a funny question because it changes every six months. So six months ago, I might, I might've said that what we really need is someone out there to believe in what we're doing.
What I would say now is we have challenges with moving rapidly through government procurement processes, but to be totally honest, that's a good problem to have. So I think that if we want to move faster at this point, what we really need is a successful series a and to be able to grow our current pipeline of customers.
Jason Jacobs: And I mean, is there anything I didn't ask you that I should have? Or any parting words for listeners?
Elizabeth Muller: I mean, I think that this is a really exciting area to be in. I mean, we're, we're going into a industry where not much has changed ever. I mean, there's never been a successful solution to nuclear waste disposal.
Here we are coming into this with some new approaches, new ideas, and we are finding that there is a genuine appetite for the type of solution that we're bringing. I think it's fundamentally extremely exciting and solves a a global problem.
Jason Jacobs: I definitely learned a lot in this episode, and I'm sure that means our listeners will as well. So, Liz, thank you so much for coming on.
Elizabeth Muller: Thank you. I actually thought of one more thing that you didn't ask that I think is worth mentioning, which is that our solution is modular. So rather than having one destination for all of the waste from a country and expecting a community to be the the dump for the entire country.
We're looking at options for varying the waste of a community near the location where it is now. So this makes it easier to move forward. It is modular. We're not looking at just one location. We can look at multiple locations around the country and around the world.
Jason Jacobs: Great. Thank you so much for coming on.
Elizabeth Muller: Yeah. Thank you so much, Jason. I had fun.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone. Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey. You can visit us at My Climate Journey dot C. O note that is dot C O not dot com. Someday we'll get the.com but right now got C O you can also find me on Twitter @jjacobs22 where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear.
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