Researchers are aiming to backfill a deep hole of suspicion over plans to drill 3 miles down into crystalline rock in Pierce County south of Rugby.

The $35 million Department of Energy project is intended to learn whether the basement rock is stable for storing nuclear waste, but locals are worried that drilling the hole will automatically lead to storing the waste there.

That worry has led to opponents circulating a petition, a moratorium by county officials and a planned public meeting.

The project was awarded to Battelle Memorial Institute, which teamed up with the Grand Forks-based Energy and Environmental Research Center for the drilling.

Representatives of both, along with the DOE, will make their case at an informational meeting from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Cobblestone Inn in Rugby. Everyone’s invited.

Battelle’s project lead Rod Osborne said researchers want to answer questions and provide assurance that the borehole will only be a laboratory for gathering scientific data about the basement rock and nothing more.

“We believe we can overcome that fear if we tell the story of the work we are planning to do with a big emphasis on what’s not going to be done. There will be no nuclear waste as part of this project or any follow-on project,” Osborne said.

He said the DOE wants to develop a nuclear storage program, thus the borehole to see what potential the crystalline formation — prevalent beneath much of the country — would have. He said storage would be part of a consent-based process that would have communities self-identify their interest.

“DOE will not force storage on any jurisdiction,” Osborne said.

EERC researcher John Harju said North Dakota’s Century Code prohibits nuclear waste disposal.

“People’s biggest fear isn’t even legal under state law," he said.

The experimental borehole would be plugged and abandoned, according to the proposal.

The two were in Rugby this week meeting with local residents, and Harju said opinions run the gamut, from people who are supportive to others who have already decided, to others still contemplating the topic.

Harju, Osborne and DOE’s Andy Griffith, an official with the nuclear fuels program, also will be at a second public meeting called by the Pierce County Commission. That one is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at Dakota Farms Restaurant.

(Reach Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.)

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