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RESPEC Among Four Contractors Chosen to Pitch Borehole in SD, NM, TX

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.


  1. Donald Pay 2016-12-21 09:49

    Contracts, particularly those with the Department of Energy, tend to be amended quite often. The contract is with a private company, not with the voters of South Dakota. That “no nuclear waste” clause can be amended out in one second. That contract language is no guarantee that nuclear waste will not be dumped. Better think about an initiative.

  2. Robert McTaggart 2016-12-21 10:44

    The contract still has to follow local and state regulations. The folks overseeing said local and state regulations or who grant the permits are voted into office by the citizenry of South Dakota.

    I suspect that you are very suspicious of government ;^). However, despite the suspicion, you are not going to be able to wish away the nuclear waste. Furthermore, they have responded to previous experience in the Dakotas and placed this guarantee in the contract.

    The method may be effective in isolating this specific waste from the biosphere, which is why the research needs to be done. You do not need nuclear waste to do this testing.

    Donald, you also have the option of running for office and using this as a platform…that would also be another means of gauging consent. I also do not have any problem with requiring some kind of public vote before actual nuclear waste could be stored in South Dakota.

  3. Donald Pay 2016-12-21 10:58

    Under current South Dakota law only the Governor has a say in whether high-level radioactive waste is stored or disposed in the state. SDCL 34-21-1.1. Whether that would be constitutional under federal pre-emption is questionable. The initiative that the Legislature repealed in 1987 would have set up a means for a citizen vote. That, too, may have run afoul of federal pre-emption, but it would have been a stronger statement to the federal government.

    First, before any borehole test or any other similar study, there should be a federal law that sets up consent-based siting. How should that work? At present there is no such thing as “consent-based siting.” That law should recognize that states may decide to hold statewide votes to decide on consent to a high-level radioactive waste facility.

    But, even if the federal government fails to act, South Dakota needs to establish the ground rules now, as best they can, and amend them as needed.

    This is not just for borehole tests. The federal government is right now beginning the 90-day comment period on setting up the rules and regulations for a high-level radioactive waste repository for defense wastes. Remarkably, they are saying the timeline for that facility would be exactly after the end of the borehole study. So, the Philip study might not just provide information about borehole disposal, but about a Yucca Mountain-style facility.

    Look, I’ve been following these issues for 40 years. Back in the Ford and Carter administrations, western South Dakota was considered a potential “sacrifice area” for radioactive waste disposal. This is for disposal, not scientific tests.

  4. Robert McTaggart 2016-12-21 11:13

    I wouldn’t say the Governor has the only say….there would be a lot of interest delivered to various public officials in Pierre if nuclear waste were simply mandated here. They don’t generally like federal impositions.

    40 years ago the experience with Yucca Mountain hadn’t evolved yet, and that failure is guiding much of the interest in consent-based efforts today. That politics has changed. Nevada has a lot of right-leaning tendencies, but that is no guarantee that Yucca Mountain will ever be approved as a permanent site.

    It sounds like the temporary facilities that are being proposed have a parallel timeline to the permanent ones. And even if a permanent solution were approved and constructed, you would still be using temporary storage facilities for some time simply to facilitate transfers.

    So interest in near-ground or above-ground storage facilities for the temporary storage of defense wastes does not mean those locations will become permanent facilities. It means that new centralized facilities will be better in the near-term than existing facilities.

  5. Donald Pay 2016-12-21 12:55

    I’m just citing SD statute. The DENR memo sent to RESPEC was certainly indicative of a hands off attitude. There could be other regulatory handles on the borehole test that might give some assurance, but it appears DENR will roll over and not really regulate.

  6. Robert McTaggart 2016-12-21 13:09

    I would agree with you that part of a good faith consent-based effort with regard to hosting a real nuclear waste facility is a public vote. Having a majority vote regarding approval is a very strong argument.

    But this drilling test, if it occurs in South Dakota, will not use nuclear waste. They would still have to abide by DENR regulations regarding the drilling (thanks Cory for the earlier posting).

  7. Porter Lansing 2016-12-21 13:37

    It’s the last line that should worry environmentalist SoDak’ers. I believe the state (due to lack of oil well drilling) has no regulations on liquids emitted from a drilling site. A hole this deep will require several holding ponds (about five times bigger than a stock dam) where the baroid liquid lubricating fluid and ground up rock and soil will be stored, after it comes up from the hole. States with lots of drilling have strict regulations on how these ponds are removed and the ground returned to use. I worked on a few wells near Eagle Butte and Faith and because there were no regs these ponds were just covered over with a bulldozer and we were down the road to the next hole.

  8. grudznick 2016-12-21 17:59

    Were you a camp cook when you worked near Eagle Butte and Faith, Mr. Lansing? Those fellows certainly would have eaten hearty and been content with you as their camp cook, indeed.

    I want to go on record that at this time I am Pro-The Borehole by Philip for testing, but against nuclear waste being fed into the maw of The Borehole. We probably don’t want to have a Yucca Mountain Place by Philip or even West River. The panhandle of Nebraska might be a better suited place.

  9. Porter Lansing 2016-12-21 18:20

    HeHe … thank’s for the compliment, Grudz. I sold all my businesses in 1990 and studied French cooking for 3 years, did a stage (working free for the education of it) for a year and then cooked as saute’ fish and pasta chef in a white table cloth New American restaurant for 3 years. That was my seven years of training. Lately, I studied portrait photography for 3 years in order to photograph my food for my next cookbook/murder mystery. (First was “The Dakota Farmboy Cookbook” in 2006 and it had no photos). Cooking was my third career after Teamster’s Union elected official and small businessman.
    In Eagle Butte (the year of the FBI shootout happened in Pine Ridge) I was a roughneck motorman for Exeter Petroleum out of Houston. Roughnecks are a five man crew that do the drilling until oil is reached. Then we turned it over to Halliburton or Schlumberger roustabouts. We got a per diem to eat in local restaurants and stay in local boarding houses or motels.
    Merry Christmas to you and your granddaughter, Grudz. Hope the New Year keeps all the outsiders out of your state; the way you like it. hehe

  10. grudznick 2016-12-21 18:37

    Thank you for the nice holiday wishes, Mr. Lansing.

    That sounds like a very interesting journey. You know, I am going to try to work that phrase “Schlumberger roustabouts” into my next speech to the Conservatives with Common Sense.

  11. Donald Pay 2016-12-21 19:48

    The point I’m making above is that the federal government needs to halt all efforts on radioactive waste, whether its tests or actual disposal, until they have done two things: (1) Congress has extracted the radioactive waste duties from the Department of Energy and placed it in an independent agency heading by a commission made up mostly of scientists and (2) Congress has passed legislation that establishes a consent-based siting process that allows votes of state citizens to control actual consent decisions. Congress needs to reform the process because there is absolutely no trust in anything the Department of Energy does in this regard.

    Let’s hope the new Secretary of Energy will make good on his promise to abolish his Department, and place the radioactive waste function into an independent agency.

  12. Porter Lansing 2016-12-21 19:52

    You’re welcome, kind sir. If you do, Schlumberger is a French oil field service company and is pronounced Schlum-burr-jay.

  13. grudznick 2016-12-21 21:14

    French? Pronounced with that snooty “burr-jay” ending?

    That’s perfect. When I get to say “If the Schlumberger roustabouts are sent to get you…” I will really sound like I’m a learned man.

    But that brings a tough question. I refer to Mr. H as Mr. H because I find it tough to spell his name right and do not wish to offend. But I always felt I could say it right. I now wonder, especially with his affinity to most things French except fries, if Mr. H’s name is pronounced Hildy-burr-jay.

    It seems a conundrum that will keep me tossing tonight.

  14. Porter Lansing 2016-12-21 21:21

    Exactly right. Hill-dee-burr-jay … oooh la la ♛

  15. Donald Pay 2016-12-21 22:04

    Here is what they are saying about the deep borehole “test” in Texas:

    “This is only a research test,” said Chuck McDonald, a consultant hired by AECOM to work on the P.R. effort. “There is no nuclear waste involved. Is it possible that after five years the test determined that this could be done and somebody could come back and say ‘Let’s propose a disposal facility?’ Yes, that could happen. But just the mere fact that there is a research test being done in no way triggers that.”

    Notice that there is no guarantee here that DOE will not come back and propose a disposal facility a the test site. “That could happen,” says a spokesperson for the Texas effort.

  16. jerry 2016-12-21 23:08

    Wow, good catch there Mr. Pay! Kind of puts it all into where we have all thought all the way around. This is gonna be a dump site. South Dakota’s economic development, a waste site for Waste Management let the sludge begin. I wonder if the mayors of Philip and Midland want that link to be let out of the bag?

  17. jerry 2016-12-21 23:10

    I am sure that the west river newspapers like the Rapid City Journal will ignore your news sir.

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