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Borehole developers, universities team up in bid for $35M grant

Posted: Monday, January 9, 2017 7:00 pm | Updated: 6:51 am, Tue Jan 10, 2017.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

The developers of a proposed borehole drilling test in Otero County, one of two potential sites in New Mexico, will partner with the state’s largest universities to try to win a $35 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to research underground nuclear waste storage.

TerranearPMC, a Los Alamos company specializing in environmental reclamation, says it will work with New Mexico State University, New Mexico Tech and The University of New Mexico on research and development of the project.

According to the company and the Department of Energy, the borehole would be used to study geology and the feasibility of nuclear waste disposal but would not include nuclear waste.

Otero County is one of two sites in New Mexico and four nationwide being considered as a possible location for borehole experiments.

The New Mexican reported Sunday on the other proposed site in New Mexico, just outside the small town of Nara Visa in Quay County, about 50 miles west of the Texas border. The Quay County Commission has approved the proposal. But some residents fear the project could lead to nuclear waste disposal and have questioned why the project is slated for private land instead of federal property.

If selected for the borehole project, TerranearPMC will spend five years drilling more than three miles into the earth to study if a crystalline rock layer could safety store radioactive waste. The hole would be just 8½ inches in diameter but one of the world’s deepest in depth. A second hole 17½ inches could also be drilled.

The goal would be to determine whether high-level nuclear waste could then be safely placed in the deepest part of the hole, with the surrounding earth and water protected by a steel and concrete barrier.

The U.S. currently has more than 109,000 metric tons of high-level waste from nuclear reactors and atomic weapons production awaiting disposal, according to a 2010 study.

TerranearPMC has worked with Los Alamos National Laboratory in radiological cleanup since 1992.

Otero County, Quay County and communities in Texas and North Dakota were selected by the Energy Department in mid-December for the first phase of the borehole project. That phase is gaining public support and necessary regulatory approval for the drilling. Only one community will be selected for a borehole.

Communities in South Dakota and North Dakota have rejected a proposed borehole, in part because of concerns that drilling could lead to nuclear waste disposal in their areas.

An email exchange between members of the Otero County Economic Development Council in December said the project could bring 40 high-wage jobs to the county over the next 18 months, with goods and services bought by TerranearPMC in nearby Alamogordo.

“If work is successful and other conditions are met, the project will continue to a second phase, employing even more people,” council president Michael Espiritu wrote.

At the end of the email, he said, “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 provision 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.”

Ken Fillman, chief executive officer of TerranearPMC, also said in a written statement Monday that “open and extensive public communication on the nature and purpose of the project is paramount to the project’s success.”

“The emphasis is on research, not waste disposal,” the statement said in bold-face type.

Last May, before the Department of Energy strengthened the provision that nuclear waste would not be involved in the project, the Otero County Commission rejected the borehole proposal.

“I’m not against it because it’s private property. If he wants to do it, it’s his business,” former County Commissioner Ronny Rardin told the Alamogordo Daily News in May. “But in my District 3 if you ask me or the people I’ve talked to, they not only said no, they said hell no. I can’t support this in any way.”

Commissioner Susan Flores said the public has not weighed in on the project again since it was granted first phase approval by the Department of Energy in December, and the County Commission has not issued an opinion because the project is slotted for private land owned by rancher Greg Duggar.

A public meeting on the proposed borehole is scheduled for February in Otero County, and the company will present the proposal to the county Commission again Thursday.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.


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