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Officials raise ‘deep concern’ that proposed drilling project near Rugby could lead to nuclear waste disposal in N.D.

BISMARCK – Plans to drill a 3-mile-deep hole near Rugby, N.D., to test whether certain rock formations are suitable for storing radioactive waste bumped into a thick layer of skepticism Thursday from state and county officials who fear North Dakota is being groomed to become a nuclear waste disposal site.

“It seems to me that normally you would test where you are thinking you might someday actually do something,” said Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who chairs the state Board of University and School Lands that must approve a lease for the proposed drilling on state-owned trust land.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced Jan. 5 that it had selected Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio, to drill the test borehole more than 16,000 feet deep on 20 acres of land about 15 miles south of Rugby in north-central North Dakota. The University of North Dakota’s Energy & Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks is one of three Battelle partners for the project.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz called it an important first step in understanding potential uses for the crystalline rock formations that underlie much of the continent, “including the feasibility of boreholes as an option for long-term nuclear waste disposal.”

John Harju, vice president for strategic partnerships at the EERC, stressed that the five-year project will involve no nuclear waste, noting that the type of disposal being studied isn’t allowed under current law.

But he said it will produce valuable core samples and information about the state’s geology, potential new mineral wealth and geothermal possibilities. The Department of Energy has committed $35 million to the project.

“This is an extremely rare opportunity to learn a great deal about the deep subsurface under our state,” he said.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who sits on the five-member land board, said if the study finds the site suitable for nuclear waste disposal, “then we’ll go through that turmoil.” He questioned whether it’s an alternative to the stalled Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada, which has faced intense public and political opposition.

“This isn’t something that I’m all that thrilled to see,” he said. “We’re contributing plenty to the energy needs of this nation, and I don’t know if I even want to start with this.”

Harju reiterated that the project isn’t about selecting a disposal site and that the hole will be plugged and abandoned at the end of the project.

“This is about technology development and deep science understanding,” he said.

But Dalrymple said Moniz “made no effort to hide the fact that this is something they’re very hopeful about, so let’s not kid ourselves here.”

Pierce County Commissioner David Migler, who lives 12 miles from the proposed site, said news of the proposal “really threw us for a loop” and has generated a lot of calls to local officials. Harju said the EERC learned it had been selected the same day Moniz released his statement.

“It is a deep concern for us,” Migler said, adding, “I don’t see any benefit to the county.”

The project timeline calls for drilling to begin in September. The first phase will consist of drilling and testing a hole 8.5 inches in diameter. If that’s successful, the second phase will involve drilling a 17-inch-diameter hole, conducting simulated waste handling and retrieval operations and testing storage canisters.

No decision was made Thursday. Dalrymple said the Land Board needs to figure out the proper steps going forward, saying the entire state has an interest in the decision.

“I think the whole state Legislature is ultimately the place you’re going to wind up,” he told Harju.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at