Studying the Feasibility of Deep Boreholes

December 19, 2016

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UPDATE (May 23, 2017): Due to changes in budget priorities, the Department of Energy does not intend to continue supporting the Deep Borehole Field Test (DBFT) project and has initiated a process to effectively end the project immediately.


Today, the Department of Energy (DOE) is announcing the selection of four companies — AECOM which is exploring a site in Texas, ENERCON which is exploring a site in New Mexico, TerranearPMC which is exploring a site in New Mexico, and RE/SPEC which is exploring a site in South Dakota — to begin exploring the possibility of conducting a deep borehole field test. Ultimately, only one site will be chosen for the field test.

Deep boreholes are narrow, vertical holes drilled deep into the earth, in this case to a depth of approximately three miles below the earth’s surface. The Department is partnering with these four companies to study the feasibility of engineering deep boreholes. One of the field test’s main purposes is to collect data on the type of rocks, the chemistry of the water, the depths to these rocks and water, the temperature of the rocks and other geologic data to see if nuclear waste disposal is feasible in this kind of geology. It will also provide a unique opportunity to gather other deep local geologic data and may have follow-on potential for geothermal research.

The Department is particularly interested in evaluating whether deep boreholes might offer a safe and practical alternative to mined geologic repositories for smaller forms of nuclear waste. Importantly, no nuclear waste will be involved in this field test, nor will the Department use any selected site for the actual storage or disposal of waste in the future. 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.

The data collected by DOE over the course of the deep borehole field test could also have applications for other drilling projects, such as those used for geothermal energy production. In addition, a deep borehole field test could provide potential economic and scientific benefits for local, state, and regional stakeholders.

Earlier this year, initial efforts to begin the deep borehole project in Spink County, South Dakota and Rugby, North Dakota were met with community concerns that the Federal Government would require these communities to accept waste in the future. DOE and the initial contractor worked to address those concerns, but it became clear that insufficient initial communication and outreach created a negative impression of the project that resulted in community opposition of the proposed deep borehole field test. As a result, DOE decided to withdraw the project.

Based on this experience, DOE revised the request for proposals to reflect the Department’s understanding that public engagement and support for this project is paramount, and to make completely clear that the field test site would not be used for future nuclear waste disposal. The new contract takes a phased approach that emphasizes the importance of engaging the local community in the progression of the project. For that reason, we have partnered with four different companies that will each work closely with the communities surrounding their proposed test sites. One of these sites will ultimately be chosen for the field test. Each contracting team selected by DOE will work to reach a cooperative and mutually beneficial agreement with the community before any drilling takes place. Only those teams that establish an agreement with the local community will go forward in the competition for the final site selection. This phased approach allows DOE to move forward with a contracting team that has established a successful community partnership.

The results and data from this project, if the borehole disposal concept proves feasible, will help DOE make future decisions on the possibility of using deep boreholes for smaller forms of nuclear waste. If the borehole test indicates that the approach is feasible, appropriately sited boreholes could contribute to managing our nation’s nuclear waste in a way that is safe and effective.

In closing, I want to recognize that anytime a community hears about a Federal government project involving the words “nuclear waste,” questions and concerns understandably arise. That’s why DOE has strengthened this project’s contract provisions to make completely clear that it will not involve the handling, treatment, or disposition of any nuclear waste, and that community support is a central factor in whether or not the project moves forward at a proposed site. The initial phases of the project require the selected companies to begin outreach to communities and seek support of local governments and other community stakeholders. DOE looks forward to working with the selected contractors and potential communities to discuss this project and its importance in advancing the energy, environmental, and security interests of the United States.