Miles-deep borehole plan a hot topic

Farm Forum

REDFIELD — While officials promised a deep borehole test project would not result in nuclear waste being stored in Spink County, the area wouldn’t be discounted as a site where waste could eventually be deposited 3 miles beneath the surface.

That’s what about 25 people who attended the Spink County Commission meeting on Tuesday morning in Redfield learned.

A contract prohibiting storing nuclear waste is not allowed by the federal government because it would govern future endeavors by other entities, said Andy Griffith of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Battelle, a non-profit trust that specializes in the energy industry, and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City are working together to start the deep borehole drilling project, which is actually a federal Department of Energy undertaking. They want to drill in Spink County because of its buried rock formations.

Officials tried to assure residents at meetings in Redfield and Tulare last week that there is no intention of storing radioactive waste or materials in Spink County, but attendees still expressed concerns.

At Tuesday’s commission meeting — which featured a full room and people hovering near the doorway — representatives from Battelle and the U.S. Department of Energy said that the testing would amount to a dry run, but stressed it would not involve any nuclear waste.

“The experiment is to do some tests to see if we can drill a 5,000-meter hole straight up and down in granite,” Battelle’s Media officer T. R. Masey said during an American News interview in Aberdeen before the meetings last week. “We like the granite in Spink County. We haven’t pushed any buttons, and we haven’t pulled any triggers. We haven’t moved any way officially towards siting our project in Spink County.”

There is no intention of storing radioactive waste in Spink County due to state laws, federal regulations and mainly the fact that the county’s water supply is too close to the drilling site, he said.

“We’re not looking at this for nuclear waste disposal, we’re looking at this for an understanding of what granite looks like, how it behaves and what kind of properties it has at 16,000 feet. And also to develop the tools and methods of how to do this project,” said Rod Osborne, Battelle infrastructure and environment manager during an interview before the public meetings.

The granite rock in Spink County, called the Benson block, is a prime place to conduct the experiments to determined if borehole drilling could be used to store radioactive waste in other areas of the country, Osbourne told the American News.

“This kind of rock is under a lot of parts in the United States. The fact that this is not fractured, it’s very stable and it’s been that way for more than a billion years makes it a great place to do the test. It doesn’t make it a great place to do nuclear waste disposal because of a lot of other reasons,” he said.

“One of the reasons we wanted to pick here is there’s not a lot of oil and gas exploration that might’ve cracked the rock that we want to do our experiment. That crystalline basement is at varying depths all over the United States. In Spink County, it’s only 1,000 feet deep. So we’re going to drill through what most people in the drilling business would see as dirt and sedimentary rock — not very hard. Other places you might drill down 5,000 or 6,000 feet before you get to that crystalline basement,” Masey said during the pre-meetings interview.

The experiment would involve drilling a straight hole 3.2 miles deep to take core samples from the granite rock. The granite rock is about 1,000 feet below the surface in Spink County, and teams would drill 15,000 feet into the granite rock for core samples and to see if drilling a very straight hole is possible.

The drilling process would take about 10 months to complete, according to Osbourne. The hole would be about the size of a manhole cover at the top and shrink to circle around 8 inches wide at the bottom. Between 50 and 60 workers would be on site during the drilling process, then would decrease once drilling is complete. At that time, the group would be compromised of mostly engineers, scientists and students conducting research.

According to a Battelle handout, 50 semi truck loads of material would be needed to construct a 150-foot tall drill rig that will send a drill bit down to make the hole.

Officials said the drilling would cost about $35 million. And they expect it would have a $1 million economic benefit to Spink County and $10 million statewide. That’s over a five-year span.

“We expect it to be solid granite, but we’re curious to find out if there are different layers of granite. Does it behave differently deeper under heat and pressure? Does that rock look different at only 2,000 feet? The same granite might behave this way, but at 3 miles it might be different,” Masey said during his interview with the American News.

During the same interview, Osborne said the temperature of the rock 16,000 feet below the surface is estimated to be about 300 degrees.

He told Spink County residents that after the project is finished and with the landowner’s consent, the hole would be filled with a cement and clay mixture.

“Are we doing an experiment to see if this is a viable alternative for a place to put nuclear waste? We are. That’s a thing that’s way in the future,” Masey said before the meetings.

However, that simply can’t be done in Spink County, he said.

“Your state law forbids it. Federal regulations say that the Dakota Aquifer is right there, so that’s out. Landowners don’t want it, and your governor has already talked to the secretary of energy and said I support it as long as it’s not about nuclear waste disposal, and the secretary of energy said, ‘Good, support it, it’s not,'” Masey said.

But at public meetings last week, Spink County residents expressed a distrust of the government, especially the feds.

Kristie Binger owns and farms land near Tulare.

“You cannot guarantee that everything is going to go perfectly and that nothing might happen. Hopefully, if you end up doing it, which I don’t want you to, but what happens then when we’re all in trouble because this is a farming community?” she asked.

During Tuesday’s commission meeting, Tulare resident Jamie Fisk implored commissioners to oppose the testing in Spink County.

“I know that this is going to be a tough position for you folks because you’re going to have people come in here saying they’re for it and people saying they’re against it,” Fisk told commissioners.

He then went on to talk about how the field test is only the first phase of a bigger plan.

Plan’s source

That plan was created by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which has an objective to find a place to store spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste, according to information on the federal Department of Energy website.

A document on the website listed Spink County, a location in the Texas panhandle and a site in South Carolina as three favorable field testing sites.

The document also said that, despite being favorable, the three shouldn’t be considered the “best” sites for field testing. Furthermore, they might not be the best sites for nuclear disposal, the document says.

It says the Spink County location appears to be more favorable for deep borehole field tests than the Texas or South Carolina sites. But it also says locations near the Texas and South Carolina sites might be more attractive than the specific sites in those two states.

Fisk said that when Pierce County in North Dakota was approached by the U.S. Department of Energy and Battelle to host the project, commissioners unanimously opposed the plan, as did North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

Simply allowing testing could mean that some other location in the nation might have to bear the brunt of storing nuclear waste in boreholes, Fisk said.

“Another con is ultimately we could end up with a nuclear dump somewhere where this rock is located. This rock is located in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and clear across into Wisconsin,” Fisk said of the granite formation called the Benson block.

“The ultimate goal is to use this rock, no matter where they place it, for nuclear storage,” he said.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Energy and Battelle said during the meeting that no nuclear waste could be stored in South Dakota unless approved by a public vote.

Governor’s letter

In November 2014, Gov. Dennis Daugaard issued a letter of support for the field test to federal Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Daugaard wrote in the letter that he supported the field test on the condition “that no nuclear material beyond conventional geophysical tools will be used in the conduct of these investigations and that our interest does not imply the state of South Dakota will accept nuclear waste. Any decision pertaining to storage of spent nuclear fuel must be based on results of rigorous scientific study and a favorable public vote by South Dakota citizens.”

But state Rep. Lana Greenfield, R-Doland, said that the Legislature is actually the body that would have to approve the storage of waste, though Daugaard could slate a statewide vote if he wanted.

Former South Dakota Gov. Harvey Wollman spoke before the commission on how allowing the project into the area would be a travesty for all South Dakotan residents. He was emotional while telling commissioners how the proposal could devastate his nephew’s plans to be a landowner near Tulare.

He said his nephew wants to use money saved while serving in the military to buy land near where the testing could be.

Wollman then addressed the representatives from Battelle and the U.S. Department of Energy and said, “Thank you, good luck with your travels, but not here.”

No decision

Spink County Commission Chairman Dave Albrecht said no application has been submitted for the borehole project. Until one is, he said, no decision will be made.

“The bottom line is if nothing is applied for, what can we do?” Albrecht said in a phone interview after the meeting.

He said the commission has not discussed the issue, but plans to delve deep into what the proposal entails.

“You go back and forth on these issues, but I guess that’s how decisions are made,” Albrecht said. “We’re talking with our state’s attorney and state-level people — senators and representatives.”

Albrecht said it’s too early to make an informed decision.

“I wouldn’t even venture to guess where the other guys are with this,” he said.

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• Meeting planned: A public meeting to further discuss the deep borehole field test proposal with Battelle and U.S. Department of Energy officials is scheduled for May 11 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Spink County 4-H Building in Redfield.

• Additional data: More information on deep borehole disposal research is available on the U.S. Department of Energy’s website at