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Editorial: Proposed DOE boreholes

By tabling a vote last Thursday on whether they will support a U.S. Department of Energy plan to drill a 3-mile-deep borehole on private property to test the feasibility of burying nuclear waste in deep wells, Otero County commissioners joined a growing list of skeptics of the project.

A nearly identical project is being planned near Nara Visa in Quay County, and that County Commission has come out against the project there.

With the 2010 shutdown of the planned nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nev., the DOE has been looking at other ways to dispose of the nation’s thousands of tons of nuclear waste scattered at temporary storage facilities throughout the country.

DOE has embarked on an estimated five-year, $80 million project to collect data on whether 16,000-foot boreholes drilled into crystalline rock formations are a viable storage method. The department has awarded contracts to four private companies to provide that data.

South Dakota-based Respec is weighing a site in Haakon County, S.D.; California-based AECOM is exploring a site near Fort Stockton in far western Texas; Pennsylvania-based TerranearPMC is proposing the Otero County site; and Georgia-based Enercon is looking at the Nara Visa site.

The DOE contracts require that the drilling locations be on private property and the companies secure public support for their projects. Two other proposed sites in South Dakota have already been abandoned because of local opposition.

While DOE officials stress the borehole projects will not involve any nuclear waste – and its website says DOE will not “use any selected site for the actual storage or disposal of waste in the future,” skeptics aren’t buying it.

Greg Mello with the nuclear watchdog Los Alamos Study Group says the DOE is being disingenuous.

“It’s a research project, but the sites being selected for the research are also more likely the disposal sites because of that research,” Mello told the Journal. “I don’t buy the idea that this has nothing to do with waste disposal, which is what these communities are being told.”

In contrast to Quay County, DOE might have had better luck in southeastern New Mexico, where the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and other nuke friendly businesses have sprouted. But Stephen Hickman, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Science Center, has cautioned that any area eventually hosting a deep-well disposal site should be free of fracking – the practice of injecting mixtures of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into oil- and gas-bearing formations to extract otherwise unreachable oil or gas. Fracking is alive and well in parts of southeastern New Mexico.

There’s a reason “I’m from the government, trust me” is a punchline – and the bottom line is that communities considering such serious geologic projects, be it fracking or DOE boreholes, need to factor in long-term implications with any research project or promised economic boom.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.