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Other Views: Keep ‘deep borehole’ project in context

GRAND FORKS -- Disposal. Radioactive waste. North Dakota.Maybe it's not surprising that the first time those five words were said in a sentence, they were the only words that North Dakotans heard.Even though the rest of the sentence went like thi...

GRAND FORKS - Disposal. Radioactive waste. North Dakota.
Maybe it’s not surprising that the first time those five words were said in a sentence, they were the only words that North Dakotans heard.
Even though the rest of the sentence went like this:
“It is a scientific research project that will not involve radioactive waste at any time and is in no way a precursor for any radioactive waste disposal in North Dakota.”
But now, some days have passed since scientist John Harju spoke that sentence in an interview with the Pierce County Tribune to describe a proposal to drill-and-fill a three-mile-deep borehole near Rugby.
So, here’s hoping that the five words’ shock value has worn off and the proposal’s fuller context, as Harju described it, is becoming clear.
Today and Tuesday, Pierce County officials and residents will have a chance to gain that understanding. That’s because Harju - vice president for strategic partnerships of the Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota - and others will be making presentations about the proposal and answering questions, first at an informational public meeting from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. today at the Cobblestone Inn & Suites in Rugby, and then at a special session with the Pierce County Commissioners and the public at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at Dakota Farms.
As often happens with scary rumors, there’s an element of truth in this one. It’s this: The U.S. Department of Energy is investigating “deep borehole disposal” as a way to get rid of nuclear waste. And the first test hole it would like to drill is the one being proposed for Pierce County.
But the test would be just that: a test. It wouldn’t be used to store radioactive waste. Instead, researchers would drill the hole, learn more about how to drill that far in a straight line, study the core samples, test which materials would best suit a real storage site - then fill the hole with cement and go home.
OK. But what if results show Pierce County to be the perfect spot? Won’t it be just a matter of time before a working borehole gets drilled and the trucks full of rad waste roll in?
Well, no - unless North Dakotans and the North Dakota Legislature approve. Because “depositing radioactive waste in North Dakota is not permitted under existing state law without specific legislative approval,” Harju told the Tribune.
Furthermore, Pierce County’s geology is fairly common - unlike, say, that of Yucca Mountain in Nevada, whose unique underlying salt formations have captured disposal experts’ attention for years.
As World Nuclear News described the Pierce County proposal, “similar large, geologically stable rock formations have been identified in many regions across the United States, and the DOE said that the work in North Dakota will help to increase understanding of similar locations across the country.”
Here’s how Rodney Osborne put it to the Pierce County Tribune. “The testing is about the tools and the methods feasible for this kind of rock,” said Osborne, manager of energy business line infrastructure and environment for Battelle Memorial Institute, another partner in the project.
“There have been some concerns regarding the words ‘feasibility’ and ‘viability’ of the site. ... (But) we’re not going to have any kind of a conclusion about the feasibility or viability of Pierce County for a nuclear waste disposal area. That’s not the feasibility and the viability testing.”
At the meetings today and Tuesday, residents can get their questions answered. We suspect they’ll come to agree with UND Interim President Ed Schafer, who concluded after his own look at the proposal, “This project is safe for the citizens of Pierce County and North Dakota.”
The Grand Forks Herald’s Editorial Board formed this opinion.

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