Protests force DOE to abandon borehole project

By Hannah Northey | 07/21/2016 01:12 PM EDT

The Obama administration is scrapping a contentious $35 million drilling project to study nuclear waste storage and geothermal energy after running into intense local opposition in North and South Dakota, according to an email obtained by Greenwire.

The Department of Energy and the Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute "mutually agreed to walk away" from a five-year contract announced earlier this year to drill a 3-mile-deep experimental borehole into a rock formation near Rugby, N.D., Patricia Temple, a DOE legislative affairs specialist, told employees in an email yesterday.

DOE will issue a new competitive solicitation in the coming weeks with "modified requirements, taking into account the lessons learned from our efforts thus far," Temple wrote.


The announcement marks a sharp detour for one of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s ambitious research initiatives. Moniz has repeatedly told members of Congress the approach could serve as an alternative to the stalled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

It also shines a bright light on just how difficult it will be for DOE to site a nuclear waste repository.

DOE ran into problems early on when it proposed drilling the experimental hole on 20 acres of state-owned land in North Dakota near the Canadian border (Greenwire, Feb. 15). The University of North Dakota, Texas-based Schlumberger Ltd., and Solexperts AG out of Mönchaltorf, Switzerland, were also awarded the contract.

Residents in the rural community weren’t swayed by DOE’s reassurances that nuclear waste would not be placed in the cavity once it was drilled, with the hole simply serving as a science laboratory of sorts. They aired concerns at public meetings that allowing drilling would lead to permanent nuclear waste storage on their land, much of which is used for farming.

And in February, the Pierce County Commission placed a moratorium on deep borehole drilling in the county.

DOE then set its sights on a second site in Spink County, S.D., but was also met with opposition. Spink County commissioners in a letter to Battelle last month said it was obvious the project does not have public support.

When asked to elaborate on what "lessons" the agency would incorporate into its next solicitation, a DOE spokesman said the department learned that public engagement and support are "paramount" and that "relevant levels of government and other public stakeholders should be involved from the outset."

"We believe that the likelihood for success for a project like this can be increased significantly if government and public stakeholder engagement and support is evident in advance of the selection of a site," the spokesman said. "Therefore, the new solicitation for the project will emphasize the importance of early government and public stakeholder engagement and support."

The Obama administration is also grappling with how to move past Yucca Mountain — a project the White House has deemed unworkable — while winning the public’s consent.

In 2012, a blue-ribbon commission President Obama assembled to review the nation’s nuclear waste policies recommended that the government use a consent-based siting process for developing long-term and interim nuclear waste storage sites. DOE is now holding meetings across the country for public feedback on how to define consent and move forward.