Borehole advocates say tubes of cesium and strontium waste stored in a pool at the Hanford site in Washington State could go deep underground.

Borehole advocates say tubes of cesium and strontium waste stored in a pool at the Hanford site in Washington could go deep underground.

U.S. Department of Energy

Protests spur rethink on deep borehole test for nuclear waste

DENVER—Along the way to testing an old-but-new concept in nuclear waste storage—burying spent fuel in a hole drilled kilometers below the surface—the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractors relearned a lesson that seems frequently forgotten: Get the locals on board first.

Failure to gain the trust and approval of residents in rural North and South Dakota doomed the start of a $35 million project that would have drilled a borehole 5 kilometers beneath the prairie into crystalline basement rock. Early this year, the agency tapped Battelle Memorial Institute, a large research nonprofit based in Columbus, to lead the effort. The hole would not have been used for radioactive material, but was rather intended to garner insight to the geology and technical challenges of such drilling.

That message would not be heard by residents of Pierce County in North Dakota or Spink County in South Dakota said Mark Kelley, the Battelle project manager who had the "dubious honor" of leading the effort for only half a year, at a presentation yesterday at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. "They were not to be convinced," he said. "They were quite opposed to it."

This summer, DOE and Battelle agreed to scrap the 5-year effort, which had moved to South Dakota after failing in North Dakota. In August, the agency solicited new bids for the project, due next month, that explicitly require public engagement from the outset, including staff that will remain on site day to day to hear local concerns. Bidders are also expected to find a way of showing how the project could benefit locals through science education or additional research. The agency will likely select multiple contractors for the project's first phase, keeping its options open on new potential sites.

Boreholes envisioned for holding highly radioactive waste would be far deeper than proposed or existing underground disposal. In one version, waste canisters would sit in the lowest part of the hole (right, inset).

Boreholes envisioned for holding highly radioactive waste would be far deeper than proposed or existing underground disposal. In one version, waste canisters would sit in the lowest part of the hole (right, inset).

Niccole R. Fuller

Battelle had thought its South Dakota site, to be drilled on private land into Precambrian basement rock, might succeed where North Dakota failed. They promised to engage locals earlier, and not repeat the same mistakes, such as when local officials first learned of the project from local newspaper articles. But similar fears that the project would open the county up to a future as a disposal site, or that drilling could go awry and pollute aquifers, led the Spink County's board of commissioners in June to reject the zoning approval the project needed. It didn't help, Kelley added, that some of the North Dakota protesters traveled south to keep their opposition going.

Though the concept of borehole disposal, which would see radioactive waste entombed far deeper than traditional repositories, has existed for decades, the idea has been revived in recent years, spurred by troubles in finding a long-term home for the country's spent fuel. Such boreholes could not house most of the country's waste, like fuel rods from nuclear power plants, but could have potential for smaller, long-lived radioactive materials. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has frequently touted borehole disposal as one alternative to Yucca Mountain, the stalled repository in Nevada.

Many of the scientists working on the borehole project continue to believe in it—if they can only find a community willing to take it on.

"We want to test the things that would be difficult to do," said Kristopher Kuhlman, a hydrogeophysicist at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, during the meeting. "If we want to put waste where we'll never see it again," he added, it should go at the bottom of a deep borehole.