RUGBY — Nearly 300 people, including a couple dozen school kids, packed the house in Rugby Tuesday morning, leaving farm, ranch and business to weigh in on a deep borehole project that many believe is just the first step in nuclear waste disposal.

The meeting was called by the Pierce County Commission, looking for a forum to get reliable information to residents and get everyone’s’ questions answered. The commission was caught flat-footed by news that the federal Department of Energy had awarded $35 million to learn if mid-continental basement rock can safely store nuclear waste capsules by drilling 3 miles down at a site 15 miles south of Rugby.

Based on mostly negative comments, applause and a show of hands against it, any formal land use application is probably dead on arrival in the county.

Pierce County Commissioner Mike Christenson said before the meeting he didn’t like the smell of the idea and, even after hearing from the research principals, he hadn’t changed his mind.

“It’s not going to take a genius to figure out what people want,” Christenson said.

Representatives from lead researcher Battelle Memorial Institute, drilling partner Energy and Environmental Research Center of Grand Forks and the DOE said the 3-mile deep borehole is a laboratory in the ground and that no waste will be used or stored in the project. It will be plugged and abandoned after cores are removed for study.

“This is not a nuclear project, this is a science project,” said DOE’s deputy of nuclear energy Andy Griffith, a theme repeated throughout the two-hour meeting. He said any disposal will come in a consent-based process that DOE is developing to work with communities willing to accept such waste.

Stephanie Steinke, of Rugby, said she had trouble with that.

“The consent process is not designed yet, and you’re asking me to buy into a process that doesn’t exist yet? How can we know the science won’t lead you right back here in 15 or 20 years?” she asked.

Steinke’s comments were typical of most in the meeting from people who had quickly read everything they could find on the government’s long, troubled history to permanently store nuclear waste.

Griffith said it’s his job to develop that process, to find a durable solution for waste.

“This is tough; this is really hard work,” he said, acknowledging that the government failed with the Yucca Mountain storage project in Nevada because it used federal land without local consent. “We failed at Yucca Mountain."

At least one person in the room said the researchers should have the opportunity to do their work.

“I love science, and I believe in science and technology. Let’s give these guys a chance before we get all scared,” said Christie Jaeger, who ranches 15 miles from the site.

Dave Johnson, whose company deals with oil field waste, encouraged cooperation. He said the process of knowledge and the valuable information from the project would help everyone make good decisions.

“We have a long-standing tradition in North Dakota of making sound, long-lasting decisions based on science,” he said.

Galen Mack, the Pierce County State’s Attorney, said North Dakota has already contributed oil, gas and wind energy into the world.

“There is no nuclear power here. Shouldn’t the disposal be where the waste is generated? We’ve done our share,” he said.

Griffith said the bottom line from his view is that the DOE won’t force the issue.

“We’re not going to do this if you don’t consent. We won’t force this on you, but I thank you for the time to listen,” Griffith said.

John Harju, EERC researcher, said the team will regroup and sort through what it’s heard from Pierce County, several public meeings and other contacts around the community.

There is no Plan B or alternate site in the proposal and the focus has been on the Rugby site — 20 acres of state-owned land — because it’s the right geology with a relatively shallow covering of sedimentary layers and close to a highway.

“If this site is not feasible and if there is another site (to consider), we haven’t had that conversation yet,” Griffith said.

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

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