Borehole field test concerns some S.D. residents |

Borehole field test concerns some S.D. residents

U.S. agriculture has been at the forefront of education dating back to 1862, when a piece of legislation set up funds for land grant colleges. That learning piece has helped carry the industry and the country through more than 150-years of ups and downs, but the proverbial “buck stops here,” is the message some land owners have been sending to the Department of Energy (DOE) on a planned deep borehole field test in Haakon County.

A South Dakota consultant company from the engineering firm RESPEC, based in Rapid City, has the potential to win the DOE contract for the borehole field test, providing it gains public support. The proposal is to drill an 8-inch-diameter hole to a depth of three miles, and if the results are good, drill a second hole, 17-inch-diameter, to the same depth. The first is to see if it can be done, the second would be the width needed to sink casks of high-level radioactive waste, into granite bedrock.

Radioactive waste is the “not so magic” phrase that has residents concerned.

But Marion Hansen, a Phillip resident, and retired professor with the South Dakota School of Mines, is quick to point out to TSLN that there will be NO actual radioactive waste involved in this study. “This study is to see if we can develop a perfectly straight hole,” he said. “It is a research project only.”

“This study is to see if we can develop a perfectly straight hole. It is a research project only.” Marion Hansen, retire professor with the South Dakota School of Mines and Phillip resident

The $36 million project, proposed over 20 acres of private land, is focused completely on research and science, and the land lease and DOE agreement requires RESPEC to permanently plug and abandon the hole on completion.

“If the test is successful, [DOE] will go somewhere where they are invited,” Hansen said. “If there was any chance of any nuclear waste coming to South Dakota, I would be totally against this,” he added.

Hansen originally offered his own 10 acres for the project.

“[We] requested a dialogue with the commissioners regarding the possibility of drilling a test hole in Haakon County. The U.S. Dept. of Energy would like to drill one or two holes three miles deep, the first one eight inches in diameter and fully cased. The purpose would be research only. If the research goes well it might lead to a disposal method for nuclear waste, not in South Dakota. South Dakota has a law against radioactive waste. However, the project would help the science and bring in money to the region,” he wrote in the Pioneer Review, on Sept. 15.

RESPEC, with over 250 employees, in 21 locations across U.S. and Canada, has held two public meetings, one in Philip on Feb. 7 and the other in Midland on Feb. 16. The company’s President and CEO Todd Kenner delivered the same message at the informational meetings. “There is no waste involved with this project. This site will never be used for storage or disposal. We will have a legal obligation to plug and abandon both those holes and restore the site,” he told concerned citizens.

With U.S. radioactive waste on the rise – over 76,000 tons according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) – now is the time to take action, Hansen said. To put that in perspective: “If used fuel assemblies were stacked end-to-end and side-by-side, this would cover a football field about eight yards deep,” according to NEI. High-level radioactive waste is the byproduct of recycling used nuclear fuel, from nuclear power plants. The final form has to be disposed of in some sort of permanent disposal.

In a quest for U.S. energy independence with an environmental balance, nuclear power plays an important role. Nuclear power plants account for about 20 percent of U.S. electricity ( While fossil fuels may make a comeback with the new administration, the nuclear base is not likely going away, especially since it has little to no carbon emissions, making it arguably more environmentally friendly to some other energy options. But the waste remains a road block.

“Some of this waste is 70 years old,” Hansen said. “If we don’t start to work on this soon, we will be putting all our grand kids in danger.”

Government mistrust is still a topic of concern for the project. With DOE involvement, some residents fear a successful test might be reason enough for DOE to go back on its promise of no nuclear waste in South Dakota.

But Hansen contends, “I don’t trust the government either, but this is a great project and there is no danger.”

Either way, local residents are still unsure. Charles O’Connor, Philip area rancher says he’s still not sold on it. “They have to go through granite, and three water levels,” he said, adding that there are just too many options for errors and water pollution.

Community acceptance is the first step in RESPEC’s feasibility study contract. Jen Jones, who started the group Citizens United for a Non-Nuclear South Dakota, has begun a campaign to “stop the drilling before it starts,” touting the same concerns of opening the doors for future waste.

“The citizens of South Dakota want to prevent underground tests to determine if nuclear waste could be stored or disposed of in the state,” Jones writes.

DOE does seem determined to get this testing done. It announced the selection of four possible companies for the field test. — Along with RESPEC, AECOM is exploring a site in Texas, TerranearPMC is exploring a site in New Mexico, and ENERCON, another in New Mexico, which, as of Feb. 22, may be off the table. “Based on opposition from Nara Visa residents, the Quay County Commission has withdrawn support for a proposed borehole to be drilled through three miles of granite near Nara Visa,” the Quay County Sun reported. Ultimately, only one site will be chosen.

According to DOE, 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, providing potential economic and scientific benefits for local, state and regional stakeholders.

In 2016, initial efforts to begin the deep borehole project in Spink County, S.D., and Rugby, N.D., were met with community concerns that the federal government would require these communities to accept waste in the future. DOE and the initial contractor worked to address those concerns, to no avail. As a result, DOE decided to withdraw the project, and come up with a new game plan, involving the communities more.

The project discussions have also opened the door for potential new legislation. House bill 1071, sponsored by District 2 Rep. Lana Greenfield of Redfield, would “require the approval of the legislature before any high level nuclear waste may be processed or deposited within state boundaries.” Greenfield says this bill comes from personal experience with last year’s failed project proposal.

State law requires only the governor’s approval for nuclear waste processing and disposal. The bill passed the House of Representatives on Feb. 8 and went to the Senate State Affairs Committee for potential referral to the full Senate.

The next meeting for the deep borehole field test project discussions will be March 7, from 5 – 8 p.m. in Milesville and March 9, from 5 – 8 p.m. in Ft. Pierre.

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