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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

This time, it’s North Dakota that sinks an experiment related to burying nuclear waste

The history of failed attempts to deal with U.S. nuclear waste gained another chapter this month, when local opposition prompted scientists to abandon tests of a new disposal technique in eastern North Dakota.

In early March, Battelle Memorial Institute, a large research nonprofit based in Columbus, quietly withdrew plans to drill two holes up to 5 kilometers deep into the granite bedrock beneath the rolling prairie there. Those were supposed to be the centerpiece of an $80 million, federally funded project to see whether the government could get rid of some highly radioactive waste by sticking it deep underground.

The retreat followed objections from residents of rural Pierce County, who feared the drilling would open the door to nuclear waste. It underscores the treacherous path facing any major effort tied to nuclear waste, even when federal officials insist the project was a test that would never involve radioactive material.

"If we would have allowed this, the next step we really feel would have been (nuclear waste) in our backyard," says David Migler, chair of the Pierce County Commission, which voted unanimously to oppose the tests.

It’s the latest in a string of setbacks. In 2010, the Obama administration abandoned a 2-decade effort to bury much of the high level waste—spent fuel rods from commercial reactors and radioactive material from nuclear bomb manufacturing—inside Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert (although Congress has ordered parts of that process to keep moving). Last year, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz promised an open, collaborative effort to find new places willing to accept this nuclear waste. Nevada officials for years fought to keep the waste out, arguing Congress was trying to force it on them without their consent.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy (DOE) in recent years has directed money to so-called “deep boreholes” as a less-objectionable and cheaper way to deal with some of the waste. (Click here to read “Deep Sleep,” a Science feature story on the initiative.) Advocates said the approach could entomb waste in stable rock deep in Earth, far from underwater aquifers (see graphic, below). Fuel rods—the vast majority of high-level waste—have been ruled out as too big to easily fit in these boreholes. But Moniz has said it could be ideal for some kinds of waste, particularly 1936 slender, half-meter-long tubes of highly radioactive cesium-137 and strontium-90. Those are currently stored in a pool of water at a federal nuclear facility in eastern Washington state.

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

But there are many unanswered questions about the borehole strategy. Scientists need to figure out how practical and how expensive it will be to drill a 43-centimeter-wide hole that deep. They also want to test ways to ensure the surrounding rock at the bottom of the hole is solid enough, and that any water there can’t travel up toward the surface. DOE hired Battelle, which manages a number of the department’s research labs, to lead the pilot project to answer such questions.

Battelle officials say they picked the North Dakota site—8 hectares of state-owned land approximately 25 kilometers south of the county seat of Rugby—because it was far from any active earthquake zones, had the kind of solid crystalline “basement” rock the government wanted, and wasn’t near oil and gas drilling. They teamed up with the University of North Dakota’s (UND’s) Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) in Grand Forks.

The project quickly struck a sour note in Pierce County. The problems began when local officials didn’t learn about it until an article appeared in the newspaper in the capital city of Bismarck, Migler says. Concerns grew when news coverage stated a goal of the study was to find out if the geology was suitable for storing nuclear waste, he said. The history of Nevada’s fight over Yucca Mountain added to the worries.

The opposition culminated in mid-February at a commission meeting attended by a crowd of roughly 300 people, in a county with fewer than 5000 residents. Officials from EERC, Battelle, and DOE assured residents that this test didn’t involve nuclear waste. An EERC representative touted the endorsement of former Governor Ed Schafer—the current interim president at UND—that “put simply—it’s all about the science.”

But the vast majority of the audience wasn’t persuaded, Migler says. “At the end of the meeting all it came down to was a lack of trust. We just don't trust them.” Commissioners finalized their opposition in a 1 March letter, and the EERC replied 6 days later saying the Pierce County site was no longer being considered.

Rod Osborne, manager of Battelle’s energy business line, conceded the institute made a mistake by not approaching local officials earlier. Given the outcome there, Battelle will look outside North Dakota for a place to drill the test holes, he says. At any potential new site, company officials say they will approach locals early to try to head-off rumors that the tests are a prelude to nuclear waste. "Our intent is to make sure that the first information that people hear about the project is from us,” Osborne says. “And to make the emphatic statement that DOE’s approach to nuclear waste disposal is to not use this as a site for disposal.”

Battelle hasn’t named a new site, though it is trying to meet a schedule to start drilling later this year. Programs in Texas, South Dakota, and South Carolina had submitted bids before North Dakota was initially chosen, an EERC official told the audience in Pierce County.

Bill Wicker, a spokesman for DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, reiterated that the search for a place to take the waste is on a separate track from the borehole test. On 29 March in Chicago, Illinois, the department is holding the first of eight public hearings around the country to discuss how they will select final resting places for the waste. “We are committed to choosing potential disposal sites through a consent-based process that would involve local and state governments, and any affected Tribes,” Wicker said in a prepared statement. 

Despite those assurances, Pierce County’s Migler says it’s hard for him to see why other areas would be any more welcoming to the borehole tests. “Unless there’s a county or somebody that’s in dire straits, where somebody’s going to pay and do this, I don’t get it.”