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. Read the memo summarizing the need for exhumation of the site before the waste moves, in large amounts, into the watershed.
The site is owned by the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority. In 1980, the private company that operated the site left it, leaving a cleanup estimated in the 1996 Draft Environmental Impact Statement by US Department of Energy (DOE) to cost over $8 billion (for complete cleanup). Also in 1980, the West Valley Demonstration Project Act passed Congress, directing DOE to solidify the liquid reprocessing waste and to cleanup a large portion of the site. Much excellent work has been done, but much is left to be done. Long lasting radioactive wastes from the solidification remain at the site.
The ONLY way full cleanup will be achieved is through education and vigilance of the public and a clear demand. This is needed to prevent possible future nuclear activities at the site as well.
Organizations actively involved in the cleanup efforts at West Valley include:
The Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes
Citizens’ Environmental Coalition
Center for Health, Environment and Justice
Nuclear Information and Resource Service
They are working in conjunction with dozens of other local, state, national, tribal and international groups for the full cleanup of the West Valley nuclear and hazardous waste site south of Buffalo, NY and upstream of Lakes Erie and Ontario and of the Niagara River.
There are also many state and federal “regulatory” agencies with authority over aspects of the site. This was summarized in a report by the Government Accounting Office in 2001.
DOE and NYSERDA split the 1996 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on cleanup of the West Valley site into two separate Environmental Impact Statements (EISs). The draft of the second EIS is due out for public comment in 2007 and is to be on final site closure. Splitting the EIS has been legally challenged by the Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes, but DOE is proceeding with its segmented EIS process, now proposing yet another split and 30-year delay for important final decisions to be made. In preparation for the upcoming EIS public comment period, the last significant opportunity for public input on the final disposition of the site, NYS, local and national organizations are pursuing an independent Full Cost Accounting Study to evaluate the long-term economic consequences of the various options for final disposition of the site. This precedent-setting, important study is designed to help inform potentially irreversible decisions on final site disposition that will impact the whole bioregion– local and downstream/downwind communities, the State of NY, Seneca Nation and Canada, Great Lakes and St Lawrence Seaway, etc– for generations to come.
Like at other sites in the US (Hanford WA, Savannah River SC, INEEL ID) where irradiated nuclear fuel was reprocessed, the Department of Energy would like to declassify the high level radioactive waste that resulted. High level nuclear waste is required by law to be disposed of in a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)-licensed, deep geological repository that meets Environmental Protection Agency standards. DOE’s goal is to avoid those requirements by pretending the waste is not high level…working to declassify it so it can remain in place, threatening the water supplies downstream at all such locations. There is a national campaign against declassifying high level reprocessing waste to WIR—Waste Incidental to Reprocessing but DOE is intent on proceeding.
Meanwhile, legislation to turn over all authority for decisions at the site to the US DOE is pending in Congress. Many organizations, aware of the DOE track record at other sites, oppose the loss of state authority (and loss of rights to demand better cleanup) that would result from passage of the bill. Since the site was clearly a federal experiment in reprocessing and waste management and disposal, federal funds should be used to clean up and manage the legacy, but state rights to demand full cleanup should not be compromised. Some of our letters and critiques of the legislation are here.
Groups around the county have joined the call for full cleanup of the West Valley, NY nuclear waste site. [ Dig it up Resolution, Great Lakes United Resolution on West Valley; Group Statement – the Real Issue About Nuclear Waste ]. You can join the effort as an individual, organization, or other by becoming part of the West Valley Action Network.