DOE, Battelle Drop Borehole Contract; Next Bidders Must Prove Public Support

Public agitation over the proposed Deep Borehole Field Test didn’t just boot the proposed engineering experiment from Spink County; it killed the whole project. Two weeks ago, a Department of Energy e-mail surfaced saying the government and contractor Battelle were dropping their $35-million contract:

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 [Hannah Northey, “Protests Force DOE to Abandon Borehole Project,” E&E Publishing, 2016.07.21].

In our zombie-obsessed era, nothing is really dead. DOE seems likely to pitch a similar experiment to dig a really deep, straight hole. The difference will be that they’ll let the locals in on the deal much sooner:

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” [Northey, 2016.07.21].

So instead of Governor Daugaard and other officials quietly pitching our state for the program and leaving it to intrepid bloggers to figure out what’s coming, borehole bidders apparently will be expected to include indications of public support in their proposals to DOE. That openness makes sense: instead of issuing a contract and then twice failing to secure a site, DOE can get a contractor to demonstrate that it has a viable site where the public is saying, “Come dig!”

Deflected boreholer Battelle can afford to walk away from this contract. On July 19, they got a $170-million contract to build armored trucks for the U.S. Special Operations Command.

24 Responses to DOE, Battelle Drop Borehole Contract; Next Bidders Must Prove Public Support

  1. Donald Pay

    They are seem to be setting this up to solicit bids once again. That means bidders are protected from public disclosure of much of anything from the bidders, until after the contract is signed. They really need to reform the whole process.

  2. Robert McTaggart

    Who knows, maybe they will hold open meetings to collect public input, and then have a “peer review” of the proposal by the public…all prior to any submission.

    But definitely the disposal problem needs a solution, and that won’t happen without an acceptable political topology.

  3. mike from iowa

    No worries Doc, Drumpf has it covered his very first day in office. He’ll put his bestest buddy Putin in charge of all Nukes and prolly hand him the codes so someone somewhere can have and use the damn things.

  4. Donald Pay

    Here is the lesson learned by the failure to site the deep borehole project in North or South Dakota: “…relevant levels of government and other public stakeholders should be involved from the outset.”

    Well, yes, but that’s what DOE said it had done/was doing in North and South Dakota. It’s “from the outset” that has me baffled. How can DOE unring the bell on this? There is a paper trail back a long way on their efforts to site this project in South Dakota. If that statement about “from the outset” is to be believed, they would have to give up on siting in the Dakotas because “the outset” happened years ago.

    Meanwhile, DOE has been trying to figure out what “consent-based siting” means and held meetings and accepted comments. I wrote a comment to DOE and copy the relevant portions here:

    “Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the Invitation for Public Comment to inform a consent-based siting process for nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities.

    I support an effective phased, adaptive, consent-based, scientifically justifiable sting approach to the problem of disposal or storage of radioactive wastes. Fleshing out how this process should work, however, requires a new broad-based agency or commission, separate from the Department of Energy. It requires a commitment to limiting generation of nuclear waste by limiting or ending generation of that waste.

    The Department of Energy has earned a reputation as an unreliable partner, especially in matters of radioactive waste storage and disposal. Independent stakeholders and state, tribal and local governments do not trust the Department of Energy, which is too tied to the nuclear and defense industries to provide trusted, independent thinking, policies or science regarding the storage/disposal of the wastes those industries generate.

    The Blue Ribbon Commission also saw flaws in how the Department of Energy has managed nuclear wastes, and recommended that responsibilities for managing these wastes be shifted to a broad-based independent commission. My concern is that the concept of consent-based siting, while laudable, needs to be instituted by the independent commission, rather than the Department of Energy. This would be as envisioned by the Blue Ribbon Commission. To have the Department of Energy fast track consent-based siting risks tainting the process. Until the independent commission is authorized and up and running, there should be a moratorium on all efforts to site a storage or disposal facility.

    We already see the that the Department of Energy’s attempts to fast track a half-baked consent-based siting has resulted in the failure to site a test of the deep borehole disposal concept in two locations, one in North Dakota and one in South Dakota. The Department of Energy used its Request for Proposal process to hide information from local governments and stakeholders and refused to engage the local community early, while claiming they were engaging in consent-based siting. This created almost immediate suspicion that the “consent-based siting” the Department of Energy supported was essentially this: “Let’s get the camel’s nose under the tent, and call it consent.” The entire process was done in secret, to the point of using the exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act to stifle knowledge about who was applying, what states were involved, potential locations, and all specifics about the project. If that is what the Department of Energy thinks consent-based siting should be, then we should just stop this effort now.

    I’m concerned, further, that there is no statutory authority for consent-based siting. Congress has never bought into the process. Any effort to go down this path could be undone by a legal challenge from one side or the other. Could the Department of Energy cite specifically what laws and rules it is claiming provide it with the authority to use consent-based siting? Will the Department of Energy be proposing rules?

    Regarding how consent-based siting would actually occur would be a very complex matter. States and local governments may differ in how they would like to proceed, if at all. Several states already have statutory requirements that the Governor must agree to any siting of a radioactive waste storage or disposal system. Whether those statutes would be recognized as valid in a court of law or by the Department of Energy is something that the Department of Energy must be willing to state forthrightly. Other states, South Dakota being one, have had statutes that require a vote of the public prior to siting of a radioactive waste storage or disposal area. Would the courts and the Department of Energy recognize such a process as legal? My guess is that any time the Department of Energy wanted to shove a site down someone’s throat, various state statutes would be found to be an illegal pre-emption of federal authority. Absent clearly written statute, what constitutes an adequate consent-based siting process to people in a state may be absolutely overridden by a court of law. Why would any state go down that path without clear statutory language regarding consent-based siting process?

    States and local governments, or course, also would have regulatory authority over some aspects of the facility, even as they might be pre-empted from regulating issues of containment of radioactive materials. Whether state and local units of government could actually use these regulatory authorities to halt any federal government effort to site a facility would be fraught with legal peril.

    The issue arises regarding what “incentives” should be provided a host community or host state. Certainly, any host community should be provide funding sufficient to hire independent experts sufficient to track and participate in the considerable scientific and engineering discussions that would ensue from consenting to host a facility. But, at what point does an incentive turn into a bribe? A number of poor states, for example, deregulated gaming in exchange for a cut of the take. Now these states are addicted to the gambling money, and can’t get rid of gaming unless they want to tank their budgets. That could easily happen with the federal government handing out big checks to relatively small states and local communities. At that point you’ve bribed your way into consent, and it looks more like prostitution than consent.

    The question of fairness is never going to be adequately answered. It is manifestly unfair to saddle any community or state with this burden. It is unfair to saddle future generations with these wastes. The nuclear age and most of the commercial and defense nuclear enterprise was shoved onto folks without consideration of all the ramifications, particularly what was going to be the ultimate resting place for the highly dangerous waste products. We probably have to solve this issue at some point, but until we do, we ought to all agree that it makes no sense from a fairness perspective to continue to produce these dangerous wastes. A commitment to end all but health-related radioactive wastes as soon as practical would be the fairest way to deal with future wastes. When we have that commitment, it will be easier to find agreement as to what to do with past and current waste.

    While I am supportive of the concept of consent-based siting, I do not trust that the Department of Energy can follow through. My dealings with the Department of Energy on the deep borehole test issue indicate that there has to be systemic change. For the deep borehole project test, the Department of Energy used the RFP system to justify keeping the public in total darkness until after all decisions were made. Then they wanted a rubber stamp Governor and a rubber stamp county government to believe their claims that this was just a scientific study, not an attempt to site a facility. This years long secrecy and chicanery is absolutely unacceptable. Yet, the Department of Energy points to this process as an example of consent-based siting. And THAT, right there, is the problem. It is why a completely new agency, one that can be trusted, has to take on this effort.

    But there is another long-term issue. Another administration or another Congress will simply toss out the concept, once they’ve gotten close enough to their goal of siting a storage or disposal facility. There would need to be signed, enforceable contracts with ironclad out ramps, and no ability to override them.

    I hope this helps you as you develop proposals on consent-based siting.”

  5. Robert McTaggart

    Mr. Pay,

    I would agree that they need to take a step back and figure some things out with regard to siting practices. Unfortunately, your statement above does not commit one to limiting the production of carbon.

    More wind and solar instead of nuclear also means more natural gas to make up the difference between supply and demand, and natural gas emits carbon. If you displace today’s coal, you emit less carbon than you do today. If you are displacing nuclear, you are emitting more carbon than you were before.

    And the demand for energy will only increase. Not just here, but in all of the third world nations that want our standard of living and technologies.

    Nuclear produces a lot of carbon-free energy, and the waste it produces is smaller in volume than any other source because the fuel is so concentrated. One consequence of trying to do everything with wind and solar will be the volume of waste that they generate.

    Roughly 90% of the energy in the original nuclear fuel still remains in the wastes of the once-through process. If you want to reduce nuclear wastes even further, then we should reprocess it. Then you would minimize the amount of material that requires isolation, as well as the duration of said isolation.

  6. Lilias Jarding, Ph.D.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas, Mr. Pay. I agree that the Department of Energy has proved itself a poor partner repeatedly.

    Mr. McTaggart, just for accuracy’s sake, nuclear is not carbon-free energy. Every step of the nuclear process, other than the actual reactor, emits carbon (unless the enrichment plant, mine, mill, decommissioning, storage, transportation, etc. is done using renewable energy).

  7. If DOE and Battelle want to dig a $35 million hole in the ground, and then promise they’ll never actually use that hole for anything in the future, then they are full of crap.

    They want to dig that extremely expensive hole so that they can eventually use legal ins and outs to force nuclear waste into rural people’s back yard. Sure, they’ll try to manipulate public opinion by finding a couple local nuts who support it, but it will not reflect the vast majority of peoples common sense.

  8. Robert McTaggart

    Dr. Jarding,

    True, but then again wind and solar are not carbon-free either unless you only focus on the point of generating electricity. If you take into account carbon emissions during the entire life cycle, nuclear emits less than solar, and emits about the same as wind and geothermal. That doesn’t necessarily include the natural gas that is burned to make up for solar and wind’s intermittency.

    Could nuclear in fact be renewable? Not the way we mine today. But if we extract uranium from seawater, nature may work to replenish current seawater concentrations (Thanks Chemistry!). Interesting article by James Conca in Forbes in this regard. Instead of the sun replenishing our supply of photons that power solar and wind, it would replenish uranium or thorium concentrations. The catch is that while that replenishment would last a long time for nuclear, it won’t last as long as the sun does.

  9. Robert McTaggart


    I guess you have to consider the cost of actually building and drilling the real waste site in question. $35 million may be small by comparison for the scale of that project, and it would save money in the long term by doing things right the first time.

  10. why is it it took 50 years for the nuclear industry/uranium mines to finally get some clean-up attention in the slim buttes and edgemont area, exposing people to health effects all those years? bankruptcy was the mining business plan, as usual. this coincidently happens when uranium mining recurrance is pending before the SD Mining Board.

    SD as a small state can’t adequately administer and protect the environment in the face of highly financed mining industry, which then files for bankruptcy to avoid reclamation.

    and also,

  11. Don_ “The entire process was done in secret, to the point of using the exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act to stifle knowledge about who was applying, what states were involved, potential locations, and all specifics about the project….

    Department of Energy used the RFP system to justify keeping the public in total darkness until after all decisions were made. Then they wanted a rubber stamp Governor and a rubber stamp county government to believe their claims that this was just a scientific study, not an attempt to site a facility. This years long secrecy and chicanery is absolutely unacceptable. Yet, the Department of Energy points to this process as an example of consent-based siting. And THAT, right there, is the problem.”

    wow. well done don!

  12. Rubber stamp Gov. Daugaard, consultant Heather Wilson (now pres of Regent’s SDSM&T), and Regents. this would be the “follow the money path”.

  13. Donald Pay

    And what they never counted on were local officials who were not rubber stamps, and people who couldn’t be fooled. I’ve been trying to puzzle out why the Department of Energy never required an open and honest approach from the very beginning. I figured out that it will take a complete change in the culture and operation at the Department of Energy to have transparency. There are probably good reasons for secrecy in some of their radioactive waste operations due to potential theft of dangerous materials that could be used by terrorists. When that security and secrecy culture permeates what is supposed to more of a scientific effort, it just doesn’t work. And DOE’s bidding process is just not able to work well with a consent-based approach. That may be why the Blue Ribbon Commission wanted to transfer the nuclear waste programs to a completely new agency/commission without DOE’s baggage.


    rounds anti-EPA position popular in SD is just politics

    EPA, DOE,… we have to have major agencies with regulating credibility that don’t follow where the money directs.

  15. Donald Pay

    Spink County started it, now some Chinese citizens are opposing their autocrats who keep pushing nuclear waste projects down the throats of citizens. I’ve been watching as China exploded its nuclear power industry, and expected this pushback would be coming.

    I’d like to point out the nuclear power is doing well now in countries ruled by autocrats and dictators, while it is failing in the democracies. One of the catalysts for the crumbling of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe was the strong anti-nuclear movements in the West who made allies with anti-nuclear efforts in the Eastern Bloc. Nuclear power is a technology that seems to require lots of secrecy and security, which makes it particularly attractive to governments that are undemocratic. The more democracy the less likely you are going to have a thriving nuclear industry.

  16. Robert McTaggart

    To simultaneously reduce carbon, reduce waste, and produce the power that people actually use when they want to use it, nuclear needs to be part of a diversified energy portfolio.

    The pollution in the big cities resulting from coal is a large problem in China. Nuclear is but one of the options in China to replace coal, but they need nuclear to reduce carbon emissions and produce a lot of power.

    We could reduce the amount of waste that is produced and its duration in isolation with reprocessing technologies and advanced fuel cycles. But we would rather inhibit the progress of nuclear energy and bang them over the head for the nuclear waste that exists today. We want the best of both worlds….we want all that clean energy, but do not want the responsibility of dealing with the waste from a nuclear cycle that we have dictated.

    Talking about democracy, I am waiting for someone to try getting elected by campaigning on a message of intermittent and reduced power for everybody. Oh wait, that is what is actually happening when candidates call for running everything on solar and wind, instead of using those resources wisely.

  17. Donald Pay

    Well, some local Chinese officials seem to be nearly as wise as Spink County commissioners. Apparently, they have decided to suspend efforts to site a proposed nuclear waste reprocessing site after protests erupted. Local officials in China often feel under pressure to do the bidding of the central government, mostly to assure their own eventual rise to the central government power structure. These local official also have to consider that what the central government wants more than anything stability and a content populace. What the central government fears most is the kind of mass protest that broke out in 1989. Local officials have to balance all these factors. So, they called the protestors names and then said that siting efforts would cease. I suppose there will be some arrests of the nuclear protest ringleaders, but these protests probably staved off this reprocessing facility, at least for a while.

  18. upside down flag, huh Don? :)

    I love radicals

  19. I’m cool with nuclear being a moderate short term stop gap solution for global warming (just to help us wean off of coal while renewable technologies keep getting cleaner, cheaper and more efficient). I am also in favor of nuclear power generation to help use up/convert military nuclear waste. However, once we stop burning coal, and process all the military waste from the Cold War, it will then be time to start weaning off of the next dirtiest source of power – nuclear.

    I’d rather build a $100 million rocket to send our nuclear waste to the heart of Jupiter, or out of our Solar system altogether, than spend the same to put it in a deep hole in the Earth where it’s not as safe.

  20. Robert McTaggart

    It turns out that sending something directly into the sun is extremely expensive for a couple of reasons.

    First, you are lifting heavy material above the earth’s atmosphere. There would be added risk (and therefore cost) if said nuclear material were dispersed during a launch accident.

    The secondary reason is actually more problematic: Physics. Simply put, the earth is moving with respect to the sun, and you must cancel that initial orbital velocity.

    When we launch something, it has the same velocity with respect to the sun as the earth does (plus or minus a relatively smaller number). If you drop something toward the sun that velocity will put you into an elliptical orbit…not directly into the sun.

    So you have to get rid of that forward velocity. If you do it directly you must burn a lot of fuel (remember this payload is also heavier than a normal payload). Your other option is to send the waste out toward the outer planets, where the orbital velocity that needs to be canceled is much less. Then let it fall toward the sun.

    In either case, trying to send it to the sun would be a lot more expensive than what we could do on earth with reprocessing or isolated storage.

  21. Robert McTaggart

    If you want to do Jupiter or just out of the solar system altogether, you still would require many flights of heavy payloads, not just one.

    I would rather send people into space to explore, and reduce the amount of nuclear waste by consuming it for electricity. That would displace a lot of fossil fuels.

  22. Robert McTaggart

    The one caveat may be if the means of transportation were powered by nuclear to get there quicker. On Mars, people can bunker themselves against space radiation, but that is difficult during transit.

    By reducing the time of travel, you reduce the time that people are exposed to space radiation. That is where nuclear propulsion comes into play. Plus, much like what the nuclear navy has found out, you wouldn’t need to resupply the ship with a chemical fuel to get back.

  23. I have to agree with Dr. McTaggart. $100 million barely gets us to orbit, let alone Jupiter or the Sun. SpaceX says its cheapest orbital launch cost is $1,700 per kilogram for a future rocket just to get to orbit. Gravity will carry canisters of nuclear waste down to the bottom of a three-mile-deep hole for free. Battelle and DOE were going to dig two holes in Spink County for $35 million. Borehole opponents won’t win the argument on numbers.

    (I also agree that nuclear engines are the most reliable existing space propulsion system in existence. If we’re going to Mars, I want to get there as fast as possible… and get home as fast as possible!)

  24. Robert McTaggart

    If you are on the Moon or on Mars, you can use the rock around you as shielding. But launching a lot of material for shielding is very expensive just due to the weight, so getting there quicker is better. Maybe some day magnetic shielding will be available to deflect charged particles….just not available now. Astronauts are impacted by zero-gravity as well, so less time in zero-g is better.

    If you are going to spend a lot of money on launching things into space, I would launch systems that collect solar power 24/7 for use on earth. That would have different issues of operations in the space environment and delivery of that energy back to us, but it would not suffer the same issues with the day/night cycle.