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West Valley: DOE delays 10 more years on reprocessing waste cleanup

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Diane D’Arrigo at NIRS

On 16 April, The US Department of Energy (DOE) announced its decision for only partial cleanup of the West Valley nuclear waste site 30 miles (45 km) south of Buffalo and upstream of Western New York's main water supply. Members of the West Valley Action Network which includes local, state, national and international environmental, religious, labor, recreational, sports and government entities advocating full clean up of the intensely radioactive site, expressed extreme disappointment, but not surprise.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s decision on the site is expected later in April. Major concerns include Department of Energy’s giving only lip-service to the clear call by all sectors of the public for full cleanup decision now, ignoring the state-funded, ground-breaking independent study on long-term health and economic effects on the region of leaving nuclear waste buried at West Valley, the lack of commitment to full legal Environmental Impact Statement process for Phase 2 (which involves the majority of the radioactivity at the site), and the appearance of a setup to allow the rest of the deadly waste to be left in the highly erosion-prone ground permanently.

DOE chose to split the cleanup into phases: the first to cleanup one major building and part of a spreading radioactive leak already in groundwater and making its way to creeks that flow to Lake Erie. Meanwhile, DOE will take up to a decade to decide whether to carry out a second phase, which could be to leave the rest of the waste, which comprises the majority of the radioactivity, buried there. The high level radioactive waste tanks with intensely radioactive sludge from reprocessing, radioactive burial grounds with long-lasting waste from 1960s and 70s nuclear power and weapons reactors, including damaged irradiated fuel will be left to potentially leak more.

DOE will begin to clean up part but not all of a spreading plume of dangerous radioactivity that was first detected in the early 1990s which they attribute to a 1968 spill in the reprocessing building. That huge building is slated to be dismantled in phase 1, but some of the underground pipes could be left in the ground. Studies will be carried out to “inform” the decision on whether to remove all waste from the rest of the site or to leave the buried waste and merely cover it over.

"Phase I will only address 1% of buried radioactive waste. The public must have a say in the final cleanup; we cannot afford to allow federal and state government agencies to merely walk away from the remaining 99% of buried radioactivity in the high level underground tanks and the two radioactive burial areas," according to Barbara Warren, Executive Director, Citizens' Environmental Coalition.

Despite requests from the West Valley Action Network that DOE study HOW to cleanup the rest of the site, DOE is choosing to continue analyzing WHETHER to clean it up.

The 2008 West Valley Full Cost Accounting Study by independent scientists analyzed the geology, economics and radiological consequences of full clean up versus leaving buried waste at the erosion-prone site. The study assessed long range costs whereas DOE discounted and ignored future economic and environmental costs and risks. The report concluded that it is less expensive in the long run and more protective of health to dig up the West Valley waste before it leaks into the Cattaraugus Creek and Lake Erie.

The West Valley site
West Valley is a complex radioactive waste site with long-lasting nuclear waste mainly from atomic weapons and power production and some other generators. The site has high-level, so-called “low-level,” transuranic and mixed (radioactive and hazardous) wastes buried, stored and leaking. Burial of radioactive waste in 20-30 foot deep trenches began in the early 1960s and continued until 1974 when water filled up the trenches, burst through the trench caps and flowed into surrounding streams that run into Cattaraugus Creek, through Zoar Valley and the Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians, into Lake Erie, upstream of the intake water intake for Buffalo and other major cities in the US and Canada.

From 1966-1972, irradiated nuclear fuel from both atomic weapons and commercial power reactors was brought in and reprocessed (to extract uranium and plutonium remaining and formed in the fuel rods), resulting in high worker exposures, high levels of radioactive contamination into the streams that drain the site and gush into the Great Lakes, and many fires. Reprocessing wastes were also buried at the site. Plans to resume reprocessing were cancelled when earthquake dangers were identified and improvements were projected to cost too much. Shortly thereafter the US decided to stop all reprocessing of commercial nuclear fuel because of the nuclear weapons proliferation danger. Geologically, the site is in a bedrock valley that is expected to erode into the Great Lakes in centuries to come, but the nuclear waste buried at the site will remain dangerously radioactive much longer than the projected erosion rate.
(NIRS Radioactive Waste Project)

Source: Press Release: NIRS, Sierra Club, CHEJ, 16 April 2010
Contact: Diane D’Arrigo at NIRS