Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Plans For Deep Borehole In Spink County Raise Local Concerns Over Nuclear Waste

Officials with the U.S. Department of Energy want to know if some types of nuclear waste can be stored deep underground. First they have to find out if it’s possible to drill the right kind of hole. Researchers want conduct the experiment in Spink County.  But not everyone is happy with the idea.


Researchers want to dig an eight and a half inch wide hole more than three miles deep in Spink County. If it goes well they want to dig a second, wider one. Lance Roberts is the department head and professor for mining, engineering, and management at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. He says the goal is to figure out if it’s possible to dig a hole deep enough and straight enough to store something inside. It’s also an opportunity to study the rocks for the first time.

A lot of exciting science.

“What do they look like? How do they behave? How does the hole behave? These are all really interesting questions that we want to try to answer,” Roberts says. “Is there groundwater down there? If there is what’s it like? Does it have microbes in it? How long has it been down there? What’s its age? I mean these are all questions that lead to a lot of different fields," says Roberts

Roberts says it could lead to new drilling technology.

"The other thing that we could potentially find out is anything related to geothermal. Is there a potential for geothermal energy? We don’t know. We don’t know what the temperatures are. So, a lot of exciting science,” says Roberts.

Roberts says there won’t be any nuclear waste involved in the project. He says officials will plug the holes after the research is completed.  Some residents are concerned where the project could lead.
Erin Schroeder and her husband own land in Spink County. They, like others who oppose the project, are concerned that once the holes are dug, the government will send nuclear waste to the area.
“They start off with saying they’re going to drill one hole, and then they go on to say they’re drilling two holes,” Schroeder says. “They tell you the next hole is 17 inches in diameter, the exact circumference of one of those canisters that will go down into the hole. That very much concerns me, because when they realize that it works, the canister fits and goes perfectly down there, that’s the end of it, we’re in trouble.”
Others feel they weren’t given enough notice about the project. Spink County resident Marilee Engelbrecht says she feels like things are being hidden from the community.
“What is the truth? Why are we being told different things,” Marilee says. “The people trust their elected officers but I just feel like we’ve been violated against, and it’s just going to be a hard thing to repair in our community. We’re not being told about the dangers, only that it’s just educational testing that they need to have done.”
Some opponents are worried about the impact the tests could have on the environment. They have concerns about the project’s waste materials and how it might affect the drinking water supply.

If the federal government were to try to locate nuclear waste in South Dakota without a public vote, we would fight that to the end.

Those with the project say there’s no potential danger to the area’s water. They also say nuclear waste won’t be stored in Spink County. Rod Osborne is with Battelle, the organization leading the project. He says an aquifer makes the area unsuitable for disposing of nuclear waste. But he says it’s a great place to test the hole drilling process.

“We want to look at the most excellent possible conditions for the geology for the drilling part of the project,” Osborne says. “So while other places may be more viable for nuclear waste disposal because they don’t have that aquifer on top, there may be some challenges in doing the drilling. So we want to make sure that we can develop these new test methods, these new drilling methods, these new drilling tools in the best possible place that we can do that. Once we develop those here, then we can use those tools to evaluate other formations that are much more suitable for nuclear waste disposal.”

Governor Dennis Daugaard supports the project. Nathan Sanderson is his Director of Policy and Operations. Sanderson says the Governor would not support bringing nuclear waste into the state without a public vote.
 “That really is the key for individuals who are concerned with the storage of nuclear waste in South Dakota,” Sanderson says. “If the federal government were to try to locate nuclear waste in South Dakota without a public vote, we would fight that to the end. And so this has got to be something that the citizens of South Dakota are engaged in, the Governor is absolutely committed to supporting the democratic process. And if the individuals in Spink County are interested in seeing this science project go forward, well great. If they’re not interested in seeing it go forward, well, then that’s a decision that they’ve made and the Governor will support that as well.”

South Dakota is not the first choice for the project. Officials originally picked a site in North Dakota, but in response county commissioners there established a moratorium on deep borehole drilling. Spink County Commissioner Dave Albrecht won’t say his opinion, but says he and other commissioners will take their time in deciding if the project is a good fit for their county.

Project leaders hope to begin drilling before the end of the year. First they need permits from the state and Spink County for zoning, drilling, and road access. They are evaluating when to submit applications.