More than 120 people attended a public meeting at the Spink County 4-H building in Redfield last night to hear experts from Battelle, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and the United States Department of Energy discuss the Deep Borehole Field Test. The same experts held a similar informational meeting Wednesday evening in Tulare. Here’s the core of the company and government lines on why the Borehole will bring good science and no nuclear waste to South Dakota.
The gentlemen (I didn’t notice any ladies on the team) opened with a 30-minute presentation, beginning with Rodney Osborne, Battelle’s energy business line manager, followed by comments from Dr. Larry Stetler, professor of geology at Mines; and Andy Griffith, associate deputy assistant secretary for fuel cycle technologies in the Office of Nuclear Energy. The mostly inaudible dude at 13:30 is Jay Nopola of Rapid City-based consulting firm RESPEC.
The biggest concern Osborne tackled was the fear that the Deep Borehole Field Test opens the door to nuclear waste in South Dakota. Osborne said no way:
This project what it’s not is a nuclear waste disposal project. No nuclear waste involved in the project, no nuclear waste after the project. This is a science project only. The data that are gathered as part of this project will be used in many, many projects going forward over the next decade or more to understand this technology. So this isn’t a preparation for storing nuclear waste or disposing of nuclear waste in Spink County or anywhere else. It’s just developing the science and the understanding.
So why wouldn’t we put nuclear waste in Spink County? It’s not the right place. There’s an aquifer right above the granite where we’re looking to drill. That doesn’t make it good for nuclear waste disposal. That gets in the way of storing nuclear waste. What it does not get in the way of is us doing our test.
So why Spink County? Why do it? It’s the geology. Simply put, it’s the geology. Underneath Spink County is a very stable formation, more than two billion years old, that hasn’t been disturbed by volcanoes, hasn’t been disturbed by seismic, by earthquake, hasn’t been disturbed by anything else, so it’s very stable. It’s not broken up, so it’s a great place to drill [Rodney Osborne, public meeting on Deep Borehole Field Test, Redfield, South Dakota, 2016.04.28].
Osborne read what he said is a new statement from Governor Dennis Daugaard expressing support for the Borehole project, on the clear condition that the Energy Department holds to that promise not to bring nuclear waste to the field test site (yes, Osborne mispronounced Daugaard… but then so did one of the audience members who spoke in opposition to the project):
I have previously supported deep underground research at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead and shale formations by the South Dakota School of Mines…. I support the Deep Borehole project in South Dakota because it furthers our state’s leadership in underground with no potential for that location to be used to store or dispose of nuclear waste. South Dakota is a recognized world leader in this underground research area, and I’m proud of our state and the opportunity it has for the potential to continue this legacy of scientific innovation [statement attributed to Governor Dennis Daugaard, read by Rodney Osborne, public meeting on DBFT, Redfield, SD, 2016.04.28].
Osborne acknowledged the mistrust he heard at the Tulare meeting of the promise that this Borehole project will not bring any nuclear waste to South Dakota. He said Spink County residents have lots of barriers between them and any conversion of this science project into a nuclear waste dump. South Dakota law requires the approval of the Governor for any nuclear waste disposal in our state (see SDCL 34-21.1.1). Battelle has to find a landowner willing to sign the five-year lease for the project—there is no talk of eminent domain. (Osborne said Battelle is talking with private landowners to host the project. Battelle declines to identify the landowners or specific sites.) Battelle also has to get zoning approval from the Spink County Commission. (Battelle will speak with the Spink County Commission next week Tuesday, on May 3.) Osborne and Griffith emphasized at many points that the project will not go forward without local support.
Griffith emphasized that the Energy Department has abandoned the top-down siting policy that he says led to the failure of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site and is following a consent-based system. Griffith and Osborne both said that if the locals don’t want the Deep Borehole Field Test, not to mention future nuclear waste sites, the project will not happen there.
After the meeting, Griffith explained to Dakota Free Press another sign that his department and Battelle are not envisioning the Spink County Borehole site as a nuclear waste disposal site. In January 2016, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board recommended several changes to the Deep Borehole Field Test, including the digging of multiple boreholes to provide better characterization of the rock. Griffith said that recommendation makes sense for testing a site for actual waste disposal. But Griffith says the Deep Borehole Field Test will dig only one, maybe two holes, just to test the technology. If DOE had any inkling of sinking nuclear waste in Spink County, they’d have Battelle punch all sorts of wholes in the test site.
But that’s not in the plan. Battelle will spend six to eight months drilling the hole, then eight to ten months testing it. The remainder of the five-year lease is a window for further science, but not the pre-drilling of a waste disposal complex. Battelle’s contract allows the drilling of a second hole, but at the end of the project, all drilling will be refilled to the brim with cement and clay layers. The contract includes an option for the state to request to use the site for further scientific research, but only with the consent of all stakeholders, including the Energy Department, which would have to approve the transfer of this federal asset to the local community.
That January 2016 NWTRB report notes that the United Kingdom and Sweden have investigated borehole disposal but decided to stick with mined geologic disposal sites à la Yucca Mountain. Griffith told Dakota Free Press that while Sweden is sticking with mined geological disposal, the U.K. is very interested in USDOE’s proposed research. Griffith says that borehole disposal may be more viable now than when the British reviewed it thanks to advances in drilling and sealing technology brought to us by the oil and gas industry.
If the Deep Borehole Field Test succeeds, existing federal regulations still don’t allow dumping nuclear waste in really deep holes. Part of the point of the Deep Borehole Field Test is to gather the data necessary to inform the regulations that the Energy Department would have to compose for borehole waste sites. The more data we gather here and in future experiments, the safer we can make those future regulations.
Griffith says the borehole concept, if proven viable by this initial research, and if authorized and regulated by the federal government, will not take care of all of America’s nuclear waste:
Our nation is facing a major challenge in finding a solution for disposing nuclear waste, high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel. This project isn’t going dispose of all of that waste that has been generated, or this concept, this technology. But what it might do is it might offer a solution for some small inventories of high-level waste that was produced from the Defense program, those programs that established our strategic stockpiles and essentially helped us win the Cold War. This material is a fairly small portion of the inventory, but if this concept is proven to be successful, there may be a community out there that would be willing to host a disposal facility. But they could only host that disposal facility if the information shows that this concept is feasible, that it could work. And so we’re here to test that theory that it could work in a non-radioactive manner [Andy Griffith, USDOE, Redfield meeting, 2016.04.28].
T.R. Massey, former journalist turned media relations specialist for Battelle, underscored the point that borehole research isn’t about burying nuclear waste from power generation. Borehole disposal, says Massey, is about finally disposing of the fission by-products of nuclear weapons development all the way back to Oppenheimer.Massey says his borehole research gives the United States an opportunity to lead the world in solving one critical portion of the nuclear waste problem at significantly less cost than the billions poured into Yucca Mountain, which President Obama shut down in 2011 before it could store any nuclear waste.
Massey underscored what Osborne and Griffith said about public buy-in: positive public perception and welcome is vital to the Deep Borehole Field Test. Toward that end, Battelle plans to hold more meetings in Spink County to “look people in the eye and tell them the truth. He says the people of Spink County, not Battelle, will ultimately decide whether to press the “Go” button. Massey says Spink County has “great” geology for the Borehole, but if locals don’t welcome the project, Battelle has other sites available.
Massey wouldn’t name those other sites, and as noted above, Battelle won’t name the Spink County landowners with whom they are talking. Aside from that reticence, Massey said Battelle plans to be “completely transparent,” “open” and “truthful” with the public.
Such were the company and government lines presented to the Redfield crowd last night. In an upcoming post today, I’ll discuss how those lines went over. (Hint: think atomic number 82… and EB-5!)