The history of failed attempts to deal with U.S. nuclear waste gained another chapter this month, when local opposition prompted scientists to abandon tests of a new disposal technique in eastern North Dakota.

In early March, Battelle Memorial Institute, a large research nonprofit based in Columbus, quietly withdrew plans to drill two holes up to 5 kilometers deep into the granite bedrock beneath the rolling prairie there. Those were supposed to be the centerpiece of an $80 million, federally funded project to see whether the government could get rid of some highly radioactive waste by sticking it deep underground.

The retreat followed objections from residents of rural Pierce County, who feared the drilling would open the door to nuclear waste. It underscores the treacherous path facing any major effort tied to nuclear waste, even when federal officials insist the project was a test that would never involve radioactive material.

“If we would have allowed this, the next step we really feel would have been (nuclear waste) in our backyard,” says David Migler, chair of the Pierce County Commission, which voted unanimously to oppose the tests.

It’s the latest in a string of setbacks. In 2010, the Obama administration abandoned a 2-decade effort to bury much of the high level waste—spent fuel rods from commercial reactors and radioactive material from nuclear bomb manufacturing—inside Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert (although Congress has ordered parts of that process to keep moving). Last year, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz promised an open, collaborative effort to find new places willing to accept this nuclear waste. Nevada officials for years fought to keep the waste out, arguing Congress was trying to force it on them without their consent.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy (DOE) in recent years has directed money to so-called “deep boreholes” as a less-objectionable and cheaper way to deal with some of the waste. (Click here to read “Deep Sleep,” a Science feature story on the initiative.) Advocates said the approach could entomb waste in stable rock deep in Earth, far from underwater aquifers (see graphic, below). Fuel rods—the vast majority of high-level waste—have been ruled out as too big to easily fit in these boreholes. But Moniz has said it could be ideal for some kinds of waste, particularly 1936 slender, half-meter-long tubes of highly radioactive cesium-137 and strontium-90. Those are currently stored in a pool of water at a federal nuclear facility in eastern Washington state.

But there are many unanswered questions about the borehole strategy. Scientists need to figure out how practical and how expensive it will be to drill a 43-centimeter-wide hole that deep. They also want to test ways to ensure the surrounding rock at the bottom of the hole is solid enough, and that any water there can’t travel up toward the surface. DOE hired Battelle, which manages a number of the department’s research labs, to lead the pilot project to answer such questions.


By Warren Cornwall, Mar. 23, 2016 , 11:30 AM, SCIENCE Magazine, as posted at