The US Department of Energy (DOE) has selected four companies to explore the possibility of conducting a deep borehole field test. AECOM will explore a site in Texas; ENERCON and TerranearPMC sites in New Mexico; and RE/SPEC, a site in South Dakota. One will ultimately be chosen to test the feasibility of engineering deep boreholes that might offer an alternative to mined geologic repositories for the disposal of some forms of nuclear waste. Each company will work closely with the communities surrounding the proposed test sites and must seek a "cooperative and mutually beneficial" agreement with them before any drilling takes place.
The DOE decided on a phased approach to the feasibility project after attempts to begin deep borehole studies earlier this year at sites in North and South Dakota were shelved. In January, the DOE announced that a team led by Battelle Memorial Institute had been selected to drill a 16,000 feet (4880 metre) test borehole into a crystalline basement rock formation at a site in Rugby, North Dakota. However, efforts by the DOE and its contractor failed to address community concerns. US under secretary for science and energy Lynn Orrsaid:
"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."
No nuclear waste will be involved in the field test, and the contract specifically prohibits the storage, disposal or use of nuclear waste at the site of the test. The study will collect data on rock types, water chemistry, rock temperatures and other geologic data to see if nuclear waste disposal is feasible in this kind of geology, but will also provide a unique opportunity to gather other deep local geologic data and may have follow-on potential for geothermal research, according to the DOE. After the project is completed, the borehole will be permanently sealed and the land restored.