South Dakota engineering firm RESPEC has three competitors for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Deep Borehole Field Test:
RESPEC’s competitors for the project are AECOM, which is exploring a site in Texas; and ENERCON and TerranearPMC, both of which are examining sites in New Mexico. Each has been awarded a contract ranging from $500,000 to $1 million to begin exploring the possibility of conducting a deep borehole field test, DOE said [Tom Griffith, “DOE: Borehole Won’t Contain Nuclear Waste; RC Company a Finalist,” Rapid City Journal, 2016.12.20].
RESPEC could have an edge over one of the bidders targeting New Mexico. AECOM just agreed to pay $57.5 million to settle claims of improper use of federal funds for lobbying. AECOM avers that the malfeasance was committed by subsidiaries before AECOM acquired them in 2014. But RESPEC is partnering with the School of Mines, and Mines President Heather Wilson was implicated in similar illegal lobbying for Sandia and other major nuclear contractors prior to her transfer to South Dakota, so there goes the squeaky-clean advantage, unless Wilson goes to work for Trump as director of national intelligence.
But the Trump Cabinet will give Texas an even bigger advantage in landing the borehole project. The guy in charge of the Department of Energy deciding who finally gets the project will likely be former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has advocated for Texas to become a big player in nuclear waste:
In 2014, Perry called for his state to enter the radioactive waste race after noting that New Mexico was seeking a high-level waste dump about 50 miles from the Texas border.
“We have no choice but to begin looking for a safe and secure solution for HLW [high-level waste] in Texas – a solution that would allow the citizens of Texas to recoup some of the more than $700 million they have paid toward addressing the issue,” he wrote in that 2014 letter to the lieutenant governor and state House speaker [Jeff Mosier, “West Texas a Finalist for Deep Drill Site to Explore Nuclear Waste Storage,” Dallas Morning News, 2016.12.20].
The four companies in the running now get a few months to demonstrate that they can win local support in their proposed sites. DOE will give only one company the go-ahead to drill the three-mile-deep holes. DOE Undersecretary for Science and Energy Franklin (Lynn) Orr reminds us that this borehole project will test the technology and geology but not deposit any nuclear waste at the chosen site:
One of the field test’s main purposes is to collect data on the type of rocks, the chemistry of the water, the depths to these rocks and water, the temperature of the rocks and other geologic data to see if nuclear waste disposal is feasible in this kind of geology. It will also provide a unique opportunity to gather other deep local geologic data and may have follow-on potential for geothermal research.
The Department is particularly interested in evaluating whether deep boreholes might offer a safe and practical alternative to mined geologic repositories for smaller forms of nuclear waste. Importantly, no nuclear waste will be involved in this field test, nor will the Department use any selected site for the actual storage or disposal of waste in the future. The contract for this project specifically prohibits the storage, disposal, or use of nuclear waste at the site of the deep borehole field test; and it further requires that, after the project is completed, the borehole will be permanently sealed and the land restored in accordance with state and local regulations [Franklin (Lynn) Orr, “Studying the Feasibility of Deep Boreholes,” U.S. Department of Energy, 2016.12.19].
RESPEC and its competitors each get between $500K and $1M to do their initial public outreach and surveying; the final contract is worth $36 million.