Legislation Would End Local Government’s Ability to Block High-Level Radioactive Waste Projects


The issue of disposing of radioactive waste in North Dakota has been a hot button issue at the local level. In particular, there was a fight back in 2016 over a bore hole experiment the University of North Dakota wanted to conduct in Pierce County (Rugby). “The Deep Borehole Project stems from a U.S. Department of Energy request for proposals to gather engineering and scientific information to help them determine whether disposing of nuclear materials within a deep borehole has technical merit,” then-UND President Ed Schafer wrote for SAB at the time.

The project wouldn’t have actually included any radioactive material, but it was about exploring new and better ways to dispose of that sort of thing.

Locals were not enthused with the project, and the Pierce County Commission killed it.

Flash forward to the 2019 legislative session, and there is legislation being considered which would end the ability of county governments to block these projects. I got this email from a SAB reader in Pierce County last night:

I’m reaching out as a concerned citizen looking for an opinion on legislation that is being pushed through rather rapidly and aggressively. Senate Bill No. 2037 is looking to make some serious changes to the state century code in regards to the Industrial Commission’s ability to permit high level nuclear waste depositing in North Dakota. As a resident of Pierce County, I watched the initial “test” project back in 2016/17 get pushed out. However, my initial thoughts now are that there is some serious fire power working to get this bill pushed through. I’m a pretty avid follower of your work and have seen your ability to dissect issues and raise some awareness. If you can potentially take a look at it I would greatly appreciate it.

Personally, I a very strong proponent of allowing local decisions to be able to make decisions that impact their communities. If this bill were to pass, the only thing really standing in the way of a potential high level site being permitted in the Industrial Commission and if last year is any type of comfort, they couldn’t even get their minutes published on time.

I checked on the bill, which was introduced by Legislative Management, and my correspondent is right. The legislation establishes a process through which the disposal of high-level radioactive material in our state can be approved. You can read the entire legislation below, but to the point of local control, this excerpt is pretty clear:

I was critical of Pierce County when they refused to allow UND’s project in their jurisdiction. They were saying to even researching the disposal of this sort of waste.

How can we make energy sources like nuclear power safer if we can’t even do the research necessary to gain knowledge about the disposal of its waste?

That said, I’m not sure that big footing local control over these projects by giving all authority to the state Industrial Commission (made up of the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Agriculture Commissioner) is a good idea.

The most basic purpose of government is, believe it or not, to avoid rancor. As ugly and trying as the governing process can be, the alternative to it is settling political and social disputes through vigilantism and violence. What good government provides is a process through which rules can be set and disputes settled in a way that leaves even the losers in those debates satisfied with the process.

If we take county governments out of the process of approving something like a radioactive waste facility, are the locals who live around those facilities going to feel satisfied? Or are they more likely to protest?

I suspect it’s the latter.

Again, I was for the project in Pierce County, but if we want that sort of endeavor to be successful we need buy-in from locals. You aren’t going to get that with policy which all but silences local leaders in the process.

Sometimes we just have to accept that democracy is hard.

Here’s the full bill:

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