Technologically-Enhanced Naturally-Occurring Radioactive Material


North Dakota is currently the only oil-producing state that does not have a disposal site for this waste material produced in the oil and gas drilling and production process. TENORM is found in drill cuttings, filter socks, produced water, tank sludge, pipe scale, etc. There are other common items that contain similar low levels of radioactivity such as smoke detectors, cat litter, bananas, coffee grounds and granite counter tops. Industrial processes concentrate the natural radioactivity in the material to a level that exceeds thresholds that require special handling and disposal. Other industries also create TENORM such as water and wastewater treatment plants, mining activities, medical facilities and fertilizer manufacturing.

TENORM is regulated by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which requires reporting of trucks hauling the material and where it is destined for disposal. Shippers have to be licensed by the DEQ, and report what and where they’re hauling. The state produces an average of 92,000 tons of TENORM per year, all of which is now shipped out of state for disposal. If a landfill is developed for the disposal of TENORM in North Dakota, it would be permitted and monitored by DEQ. 

WDEA commissioned a research effort to determine the best options for disposal in the state. The study produced a heat map to show likely locations of future drilling activity, which are the areas where TENORM is expected to be produced in the coming years. The study is intended to allow the state to be responsible for handling most or all of the waste it generates, to prevent the industry’s vulnerability to the chance that another state may one day refuse to accept TENORM from North Dakota. Around 90 percent of the TENORM is now going to Montana, about eight percent to Idaho, and smaller amounts to Colorado and Oregon. 

States have varying limits on the level of radioactivity they will accept for disposal. Colorado’s level is 2,000 picocuries/gram, while Montana is at 200 and will be changing to 50. North Dakota also has a 50 picocuries/gram limit, and allow 25,000 tons per site per year. 

Slurry wells are another disposal option. TENORM must be first pulverized into very fine particles and then mixed with produced water from drilling operations to form a slurry, which is injected into an underground formation by a disposal well. Three such wells have been permitted in North Dakota, but none are yet operational, although one is under development in McKenzie County.

The WDEA study led to establishment of a working group to develop recommendations for siting, permitting and monitoring of TENORM disposal operations. The group is made up of legislators, county representatives, industry experts and regulators from DEQ and the Department of Mineral Resources. 

Click here for the DEQ’s database of information related to TENORM.

Read More


Issue Updates

1/4/20 - WDEA to Develop TENORM Study
The Executive Committee of the Western Dakota Energy Association approved a contract this week with AE2S Nexus to help western communities determine the amount of current and future low level radioactive waste produced by oilfield operations and how best to dispose of the material.

12/20/19 - WDEA Will Consider TENORM Study
The Western Dakota Energy Association will consider formalizing a proposal next month aimed at developing a regional strategy for western counties to deal with low-level radioactive waste from oilfield drilling operations.