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Regulators prep for an industry few want: nuclear waste disposal
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Regulators prep for an industry few want: nuclear waste disposal

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North Dakota State Geologist Ed Murphy helped craft the state's first comprehensive rules for nuclear waste disposal.

North Dakota is imposing its first comprehensive rules for nuclear waste disposal more than four years after Pierce County residents were caught off-guard by a proposal to drill test wells near Rugby.

The state Industrial Commission approved the regulations in late July, as well as new rules surrounding deep geothermal wells, another industry that does not exist in North Dakota but could emerge one day.

The waste disposal rules spell out all the steps an entity would have to go through if it were to propose storing “high-level radioactive waste” in North Dakota. Such waste is highly radioactive material generated from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, for example, and it requires permanent isolation.

The regulations likely will serve to discourage disposal of the waste in North Dakota, said Sen. Jim Roers, R-Fargo, who chaired an advisory committee working on the rules. He hasn’t heard of any proposals to examine potential sites in the state following an effort by the U.S. Department of Energy to drill an exploratory borehole near Rugby, which Pierce County officials shot down when they heard about it in 2016. Federal officials said the proposed experiment was not a step toward actually burying waste in the state.

“The most important thing to come out of this is that we have rules and expectations of anybody coming to our state,” Roers said. “I don’t think they’ll try to do the backdoor approach anymore.”

The Legislature passed a bill into law in 2019 that prohibits the disposal of high-level radioactive waste in North Dakota. For the rules to even take effect, “the first thing you have to do is get that law overturned or thrown out,” State Geologist Ed Murphy said.

“We were writing rules for a program that, by law, is prohibited,” he said.

Roers said the thinking behind establishing the rules in light of the ban is that if the federal government were ever to try to trump North Dakota’s prohibition, it might still agree to follow the regulations established by the state.

What’s in the rules

If the ban is ever struck down and an entity were to approach the state about establishing a storage facility for high-level radioactive waste, officials would look to the 13 pages of rules passed by the Industrial Commission, a three-member panel chaired by Gov. Doug Burgum.

The rules require that anyone looking to study the feasibility of storing the waste in North Dakota obtain an “exploration permit” from the state and secure financial assurance, such as a bond, in order to drill a test well. The state would have up to six months to make a permitting decision and would hold a public hearing. Along with the application, an entity would have to show that it had notified county officials about the project and given them a chance to take a position on it.

If the entity wanted to move forward with a project, it would then need a “facility permit,” which would prompt a similar vetting process. Officials would have up to a year to decide whether to issue a permit.

Before granting a permit, the operator would need to deposit at least $100 million in a new state fund.

“The half-lives of some of the radioactive waste will be dangerous much longer than any sign, monument, or avoidance structures would remain unless they are maintained in perpetuity,” the regulations state. “This money is to be used to ensure the passive institutional controls are maintained for thousands of years.”

A half-life refers to the duration of the radioactive decay process.

Murphy said that provision stems from examining research at a site in Carlsbad, N.M., where plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements are stored in a salt formation 2,100 feet underground. The federal energy department has looked into installing long-lasting granite markers with a warning in numerous languages about the material buried there.

Murphy envisions such markers might be necessary in North Dakota should a site ever come to fruition. The state would need to prepare for a variety of contingencies that could occur thousands of years down the road, from tourists stumbling across the site to terrorists looking to dig up the material to oil companies seeking to drill in the area, he said.

In North Dakota, the material likely would be buried far deeper than in New Mexico. The proposal for Pierce County sought to drill down 16,000 feet to see if the rock formations there might be adequate for storing the waste.

If a facility were to make it through the permitting process, it would have to pay an annual operating fee of at least $1 million to the state. It also would need to provide monthly reports on activities at the site and comply with reclamation rules when the site is no longer in use.

Documents regarding the location and depth of the site, as well as details about the half-life of the radioactive waste buried there, must be stored in local, state and national archives -- an effort to ensure they last in perpetuity in case the information is needed hundreds or thousands of years down the road, Murphy said.

While counties cannot outright impose a ban on the disposal of the materials, any project would need to adhere to local zoning regulations as to the size, scope and location of the site.

Murphy said the state examined the regulations of 13 other states in developing its rules.

Geothermal wells

The Industrial Commission also has OK'd rules to handle the permitting of deep geothermal wells, which could be drilled to access hot groundwater to drive a turbine to generate electricity.

Such a project is underway in Saskatchewan not far from the border near Crosby in North Dakota. A company known as DEEP Earth Energy Production Corp. is drilling 12,000-foot wells to harness the region’s geothermal resources and planning to build a power plant.

Murphy said the state’s existing rules for geothermal energy were written for far shallower systems used for heating and cooling. The state has issued nearly 2,000 permits for shallow well projects at homes and businesses across the state. The largest system, consisting of 1,109 wells, is at the Microsoft campus in Fargo. Smaller systems exist at Bismarck State College and Will-Moore Elementary School in Bismarck.

Murphy said the new deep geothermal rules borrow from regulations governing the permitting of oil field wells.

The state is actively researching geothermal energy potential in North Dakota by examining temperatures down abandoned oil wells. Researchers have already done some of this work in the Williston Basin and plan to study another dozen wells by fall.

“There are hotter areas in the basin than others,” Murphy said. “With these additional dozen wells or so, we’re trying to pinpoint that.”

The new rules for high-level radioactive waste and deep geothermal energy have one final hurdle to clear before they become official -- they will go to a legislative Administrative Rules Committee for approval.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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