Monday, Dec. 19, 2016 | 9:13 p.m.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Four companies will pursue the possibility of conducting a test to determine whether nuclear waste can be buried far underground, federal energy officials announced Monday, months after two prospective sites in the Dakotas were abandoned over local opposition.
The U.S. Department of Energy said the companies will explore potential sites for the test in South Dakota, Texas and New Mexico. Only one company will eventually carry out the borehole field test, which at no point will involve the use of actual nuclear waste.
California-based AECOM is exploring a field test site in Texas, while RESPEC is pursuing a site in South Dakota, where it is based. New Mexico-based TerranearPMC and Georgia-based ENERCON are looking at sites in New Mexico.
Boreholes are narrow, vertical holes that are drilled into the earth usually to determine the geological characteristics of the rock below. The proposed test is meant to assess whether nuclear waste can be stored in approximately 3-mile-deep holes.
"It is important to note there will be no nuclear waste used as part of this project nor will the site for the field test be used for future nuclear waste disposal," said Andy Griffith, deputy assistant secretary in the department's Office of Nuclear Energy. Griffith declined to name the communities where the companies are pursing the sites, but said they will be revealed in the near future.
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.
The federal government for decades has researched possible sites for a permanent disposal site, including at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, but the country still lacks a repository for waste disposal.
The Department of Energy is emphasizing the absence of radioactive material in the project after communities in the Dakotas rebuffed the idea earlier this year over confusion and skepticism. In North Dakota, commissioners in Pierce County voted in March to formally oppose the project. Three months later, organizers abandoned Spink County, South Dakota, as a potential site because of resistance from local officials.
The agency has acknowledged that insufficient initial communication and outreach left the communities with a negative impression of the project. Griffith said the department is taking the lessons learned from the two experiences and is working to better engage prospective communities.
RESPEC CEO Todd Kenner said the department's commitment to not use nuclear waste in the test previously wasn't as "upfront" as it is now. He said the company is pursuing a site in South Dakota's Haakon County and has met with community representatives and business owners.
"There's information out there that leads you to believe something that this project isn't, specifically that nuclear waste will be stored there and this will become a repository, which is not the case," Kenner said. "Hopefully, that dispels a lot of the angst that people had."
The project's contract dictates that after the project is completed, the borehole will be permanently sealed. The land will then be restored.
The company that will eventually conduct the test will be chosen through a multi-phase process. The first phase begins Jan. 3.