The U.S. Department of Energy announced Monday that whichever site is chosen for a deep borehole field test — one of which is in northern Haakon County — no nuclear waste would be stored there.

That reassurance made Rapid City-based RESPEC happy that it was chosen as one of four companies awarded contracts Monday to do preliminary work that could lead to the deepest hole ever drilled in South Dakota. The borehole project will cost $36 million.

After public opposition led the department to abandon proposed sites near Rugby, N.D., and in Spink County, S.D., it revised its solicitation of proposals earlier this year and said Monday that the potential future storage of nuclear waste had been taken off the table.

“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,” Lynn Orr, DOE undersecretary for science and energy, wrote in a blog post published Monday.

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.

“Only one of these four teams will ultimately be chosen for the borehole test,” Andy Griffith, deputy undersecretary of DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, said during a Monday morning news conference in Washington.

Although nuclear waste storage is one potential purpose of a borehole, the DOE website also mentions the possibility of developing geothermal energy. The project involves what can be learned from drilling up to three miles deep into crystalline rock.

RESPEC has already entered into a draft lease agreement with a private landowner for 20 acres in Haakon County, where it would like to drill the 3.2-mile-deep, 8-inch borehole, said RESPEC President and CEO Todd Kenner. The company also has conducted discussions with the Haakon County Commission as well as interested citizens in Philip as recently as two weeks ago.

“We’re in the game, and that’s the first step,” Kenner said after Monday’s announcement. “What’s really important here is the opportunity to bring a one-of-a-kind, $36 million project to western South Dakota. It’s so unique and such an opportunity for research.”

To be selected for the federal contract, each company must show the DOE in the next five months that it has a lease agreement for a site and has garnered significant public support for the science and research project in their area, Griffith said. He emphasized that no nuclear waste would be involved in the borehole test at any of the selected sites “now or in the future.”

“It’s a key part in our ability to go forward and gain this important scientific information,” Griffith said of the DOE guarantee.

Kenner said the new guarantee was instrumental in RESPEC's seeking the federal contract.

“People are going to have to make up their mind, but DOE has made it clear and made a commitment that precludes the storage of nuclear waste or having a repository,” he said. “Previously, as in the case with Spink County, that guarantee wasn’t made clear.

“But we wouldn’t be involved if that guarantee and that level of commitment didn’t exist. We live here, we work here and we raise our families here. Without that guarantee, RESPEC wouldn’t be pursuing this project.”

Haakon County Commissioner Steve Clements said Monday afternoon that the new guarantee precluding the storage of nuclear waste at a site in his county was a game-changer that could lead more local residents to support the scientific nature of the borehole test.

“As far as the science, I don’t think anyone was scared of that,” Clements said. “They were fearful they would put nuclear waste in there.”

Despite the guarantee from DOE, the commissioner, who previously has stated he would support a public vote on the project, said some would continue to be fearful.

“I think some will still distrust them, but there isn’t a lot we can do about that,” Clements said. “They will be fearful about that forever. But now there will be more people willing to listen.”

Working in concert with South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, Kenner said as many as 30 RESPEC employees would be involved in the initial phase of the borehole project. Beginning next month, company representatives would begin concerted efforts to raise awareness of the scientific and research aspects of the project, conduct a series of public meetings and discuss details with elected representatives in western South Dakota.

“We’d love to see the drilling take place here, and that’s the ultimate goal,” he said. “If people really understand what this project is all about, the research and science and the opportunities it presents for South Dakota, they’ll get behind it. And it all begins on Jan. 3.”