Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 27 No. 10
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March 04, 2016

DOE Axes North Dakota Borehole Project

By Karl Herchenroeder

Department of Energy contractors are abandoning plans to conduct a deep-borehole nuclear waste storage field test near Rugby, N.D., in response to formal opposition from the local county commission.

Originally scheduled to break ground Sept. 1, the estimated five-year, $35 million project, proposed across 20 acres of state land, would have produced data on whether 16,000-foot boreholes drilled into crystalline rock formations are suitable for DOE-managed high-level waste. Lead contractor Battelle Memorial Institute insisted the test would not involve any actual nuclear waste, but local officials and residents worried the study would lead to future nuclear waste storage in the area.

On Tuesday, the Pierce County Commission unanimously agreed to write a letter to Battelle’s partner, the University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) in Grand Forks, requesting that organizers kill the project and not consider any other locations in Pierce County.

“Hopefully it’s behind us,” commission Chairman Dave Migler said in a telephone interview Thursday. “EERC was good people to work with. They’re pleasant, but we just didn’t trust the DOE. EERC continuously said it’s not for (actual nuclear waste storage), but coming from the DOE, it was just a little lack of trust was the big thing.”

Migler said residents and county officials both felt out of the loop during the process, noting that he and fellow commissioners learned of the project by reading the newspaper in January.

“We are certainly disappointed that we could not reach agreement on the location of our Deep Borehole Field Test,” Battelle spokesman T.R. Massey said in a statement Thursday. “But, we thank North Dakota, Pierce County and the city of Rugby for their consideration to host this important research work and we appreciate all the work that went into allowing us to discuss the project with the people of Pierce County. Even though the Deep Borehole Field Test will not involve any radioactive waste, we want to make sure the site we choose has public acceptance.”

Battelle will consider alternatives sites outside Pierce County in consultation with DOE, he said, adding that at this point the company does not have any potential locations to discuss.

In response to the project, the commission in February established a moratorium banning deep borehole drilling in Pierce County. A special meeting that followed on Feb. 16 drew about 250 people, mostly in opposition to the project. Two days later the Pierce County Planning and Zoning Board unanimously supported the commission’s moratorium, while also suggesting zoning regulations that will prohibit future projects that might lead to disposal of radioactive waste in the jurisdiction. That day the board received a petition, according the commission’s letter, signed by more than 2,000 people urging a stop to the project. The commissioners have requested that no other North Dakota government bodies consider “any effort which may one day lead to disposal of out-of-state-generated radioactive waste” in the state.

The commission said officials are unsure whether the outcome might have been different had EERC notified them sooner, but the letter suggests a different approach than the one used in Pierce County. The Department of Energy, which did not respond to requests for comment, has contended that it followed standard procedure in the matter, issuing notifications of the contract award and a Jan. 5 announcement, followed by a public news release. DOE spokesman Bart Jackson stated previously that the contract dictates that communication with local stakeholders is the contract team’s responsibility.

“We weren’t in the loop at all,” Migler said. “It was just a certain amount of distrust on our part, right off the bat. Things weren’t done proper, we felt.”

Moniz Responds on Boreholes

DOE in December unveiled a three-phase siting process envisioning a pilot facility, interim facilities, and eventually one or more permanent repositories for holding America’s nuclear waste. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has suggested that boreholes could serve as an option for storing high-level waste, using as an example the 2,000 cesium and strontium capsules from the Hanford Site in Washington state.

On Wednesday, during a House Appropriations energy subcommittee hearing, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) asked Moniz if he was aware that in 1991, Grant County, N.D., voters recalled three county commissioners after they applied for and received a $100,000 DOE grant to study the feasibility of a local nuclear waste dump. Moniz responded that he was not aware of that situation.

“Of course now we’re working on another location that’s appropriate,” Moniz said, referring to the now-canceled North Dakota project. “It’s actually in the contract, that if for any reason the site is unavailable that we will have another site and that work has been going on since the initial problems.”

Shimkus fired back, accusing DOE of breaking the law by refusing to follow the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the only national geologic repository for high-level waste. He accused Moniz of obfuscating Yucca plans and instead forcing storage plans onto local jurisdictions without proper discussion.

Moniz responded that DOE is following the law, which is why the country doesn’t currently have interim storage. He also said the criticism that DOE failed to use a consent-based approach in North Dakota is unfounded.

“This is a scientific experiment, which clearly may have, depending on results and where analysis goes, may have implications as a useful high-level waste disposal approach,” Moniz said. “It also may be useful for engineering geothermal systems. This is a science experiment. It did not have a consent-based process. We never do that for grants, for science experiments. It’s apples and oranges.”

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