SIOUX FALLS | The U.S. Department of Energy is abandoning a test meant to determine whether nuclear waste can be buried far underground — including at a proposed site in South Dakota — because of changes in budget priorities, the agency said Tuesday.
Last year, the department proposed a "deep borehole field test," which would have attempted to drill a straight 8-inch borehole 3.2 miles into solid granite. The Rapid City firm of RESPEC was a finalist to do the job if the project moved forward.
A spokeswoman said in a statement that the agency doesn't intend to continue supporting the project, which was meant to assess whether nuclear waste could be stored in the holes. Officials had emphasized it wouldn't involve the use of actual nuclear waste.
Federal energy officials said in December that companies were exploring potential sites for the test in South Dakota, Texas and New Mexico. Only one company would have eventually carried out the field test. Rapid City-based RESPEC was one of four contractors in the final running for the $35 million contract.
The project's contract dictated that after the project was completed, the borehole would have been permanently sealed and the land restored.
The proposed site in South Dakota was in Haakon County. Edward Briggs, chairman of the county commission, said he was neutral toward the project.
"They claimed that this thing was strictly a research hole," said Briggs, who wasn't fully convinced it wouldn't have meant future nuclear waste storage. "Your gut instinct tells you that's where it would probably lead to in 10-15 years."
Todd Kenner, CEO of RESPEC, said the company is reaching out to local community leaders to inform them of the decision.
Two other prospective sites — one near Rugby, N.D., and another in Spink County, S.D. — were previously abandoned due to local opposition over nuclear waste concerns.
South Dakota U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem in a statement applauded the Energy Department's move, saying that she and local community members were deeply concerned about doing testing in "our backyard" to see whether boreholes could store nuclear waste.
"I am grateful to the Trump administration for hearing the concerns raised by these communities and subsequently withdrawing consideration of this proposal," Noem said.
South Dakota U.S. Sen. John Thune expressed similar sentiments in a written statement, saying he understood why residents of Haakon County and the surrounding area were concerned, "and am glad to see the Trump administration, in the wake of strong public opposition, has decided to end it.”
A spokesman for South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said in a statement that he didn't object to the test as long as it wouldn't have led to nuclear waste storage in South Dakota.
The Trump administration budget released Tuesday seeks $120 million to revive the mothballed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which is hugely unpopular in Nevada and was largely stopped by the efforts of former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid.
Waste from commercial reactors in the U.S. now is stored onsite at nuclear power plants. The waste generated from defense activities is kept at a few secure locations.
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