The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is setting final exposure standards for the West Valley nuclear waste site and the West Valley Demonstration Project  (WVDP).  Public comments were accepted up to April 1, 2000. A link to the NRC's Draft Policy for decommissioning the site is on our
Notes & References page.
The Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes and CCCC have prepared background information and links and directions to a number of public documents.
About thirty local people attended a January 5, 2001 public meeting asking questions of about twenty NRC, DOE, and NYSDEC staff, regarding the safety and safeguards proposed under NRC'S decommissioning criteria. EPA Region 2's Health Physicist from their radiation department also joined in the discussion.  A transcript of the meeting is available by clicking here (pdf Acrobat format). EPA and the title owner of the West Valley site, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), agree generally with the Coalition and CCCC that exposure standards should be set by NRC for the entire site, not just the portion devoted to the Demonstration Project operated by DOE.
If you don't know much about the site, the conflicting jurisdictions, and how it got so contaminated with nuclear and hazardous wastes, you should review our West Valley backgrounder , the Coalition on West Valley's newsletter Coalition Crier, and the maps, pictures and in-depth site information at the Coalition on West Valley's web site.

The Draft Policy notes that the LTR will allow an annual exposure to persons coming in contact with radiation from West Valley of 25 millirem (mrem) per year and, under some circumstances, 100 mrem/year. However, the Draft Policy also states, "the LTR does not apply a single public dose criterion," and "if it is demonstrated that the general 100 mrem/year criterion . . . is . . . prohibitively expensive, the individual dose criterion in the event of a failure of institutional controls may be as high as 500 mrem/year." [1]

Our concerns:

1. Exposures to 500 mrem/yr. should not be allowed under any conditions:

A 25 mrem/yr. average exposure might be acceptable, but allowing people and the environment to be exposed to 500 mrem/yr. is not accepted by authorities on the health effects of exposure to radioactivity. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 15 mrem/yr. average human exposure over one year is the minimum that will protect against the primary risks from radiation: cancer, genetic mutation, and fetal malformation. (Click here for a more detailed discussion of EPA vs. NRC exposure standards.)

The NRC's proposal to apply its License Termination Rule to West Valley is therefore less than adequately protective under EPA standards, standards applied outside the NRC decommissioning process, in nearly all other regulatory contexts.

This Rule will not adequately protect residents, hunters, and other visitors near the site from an unacceptably high risk of cancer and other health problems associated with exposure to radioactivity.

2. The NRC West Valley Policy relies unwisely on "institutional controls":

The NRC Policy appears to count on "institutional controls" (such as a maintained fence around the site) for at least 1,000 years, the period over which likely exposures are calculated. See [3][sect. 1.3]["It is reasonable to assume that current land uses in the area will be continued for the period of the dose assessment (1000 years)."] If the licensee can show such controls have been provided, the higher 500 mrem/yr. dose exposure will be permitted should those controls fail. [1][at p. 67953].

However, "institutional controls," assumed to control uses of a site over such a period, have never been defined. See generally [3][at sect. 4.1]. By contrast, EPA cleanup standards do not rely on institutional controls. We don't think they should be relied on to keep the public away from exposures to radiation and other hazards at the West Valley site.

Reliance on institutional controls, we fear, will be used to justify a scenario where wastes are kept in the ground. If this becomes the basis for decisions about the future of the site, perpetual maintanence of  hazardous areas on the site will become the focus of planning for West Valley rather than cleanup.

3. Dose exposures should be counted resulting from the entire site:

NRC's Draft Policy on West Valley excludes the State radioactive waste disposal area (SDA) next to the Demonstration Project's boundary. [1][at p. 67953, col. c]. We think this creates a large loophole: all the agencies agree exposure levels that exceed federal health standards originate from the SDA and thus will never meet those standards. This is true of other waste disposal areas outside the Demonstration Project as well. It is also true of some areas inside the Demonstration Project that have not been subject to DOE cleanup efforts. Yet the LTR may be applied only to the restricted area in which DOE has worked since 1981.

Radiation won't stop at the Demonstration Project boundary! The same standard should apply to the entire site, and dose exposure should be measured from the entire site. But who will enforce an adequately protective exposure standard over the entire site, including those areas outside the Demonstration Project boundary?

4. NRC's proposal to apply exposure standards in "a two-step process":

Under the proposed policy on West Valley, the NRC would undertake "a two-step process," establishing that the LTR standard of 25/100/500 mrem.yr. applies to the Demonstration Project (not the entire 3,345-acre site), and later determining whether DOE's closure plan for the Demonstration Project portion of the site meets the standard. See [1][at p. 67953].

DOE is currently considering whether remaining contaminated materials on their portion of the site will be dug up and stored above ground to await longer-term disposal, or just left in place. If highly radioactive materials are left in place, West Valley will become a permanent nuclear dump, attracting more nuclear waste. If this happens, exposure levels will likely exceed even the proposed dose limits (which we think are too high). This will certainly be the outcome if DOE rejects the Coalition's proposal, to retrieve, stabilize and store wastes above ground, until they can be safely disposed off site.

A further concern is raised by looking ahead, when DOE pulls out, leaving New York State with perhaps sole responsibility for the site. EPA has stated that "DOE will be responsible only for cleanup of facilities used in the [vitrification] demonstration [at WVDP]; State of New York owns site." [7][at Appendix D, Exhibit D-1]. NRC's West Valley Draft Policy states that "NYSERDA is responsible for all site facilities and areas outside the scope of the WVDP Act." [1][at p. 67953, col. a, top]. (Congress created the WVDP in 1981 with the West Valley Demonstration Project Act.)

It is unclear whether the NRC Policy on West Valley, which refers to the entire site, really applies to the entire site. The Policy states, "The criteria in the LTR will also apply to the termination of NYSERDA's NRC license on the West Valley site once that license is reactiviated." [1][at p. 67953, col. c, bottom].

The Coalition and CCCC favor a solution that will ultimately remove highly radioactive wastes and other materials off site. This option provides the best assurance that dose limits that adequately protect human health will be met. However, by putting off responsibility for setting criteria for exposure limits for DOE's future "preferred alternative," whatever it turns out to be, NRC's "two-step process" makes it easier to exceed protective standards for a number of areas on the site.

5. NRC's reluctance to perform its own environmental impact analysis:

The NRC Draft Policy on West Valley also states that because DOE and NYSERDA are preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) for DOE's own decommissioning plan, NRC need not consider environmental impacts of its Policy. "NRC intends to rely on the DOE/NYSERDA'S EIS for this purpose." [1][at p. 67954]. We think this abandons responsibility NRC has for reviewing impacts of DOE plans. For example, DOE stated at the January 5 public meeting it will seek to reclassify high-level nuclear waste still in tanks on the site as "incidental waste," allowing it to grout the tanks and leave them on the site. What happens if the tanks later leak?

The site has been and will continue to be acted upon by severe erosion. Much of the hazardous and radioactive materials from the site have already been deposited in sediments of Cattaraugus Creek and continue to advance through the groundwater beneath the site. The agencies will say cleanup of these materials is "prohibitively expensive" under the Policy. See [1][at p. 67953, col. c, top]. However, billions of dollars will be spent for erosion control and emergency cleanups over the next decades and generations, and citizens exposed to these hazards will suffer.

Will the agencies use the LTR to justify a "cost-saving," piecemeal approach to the West Valley site?  Who saves and who pays?

In their 1987 Multi-Agency Radiation Survey and Site Investigation Manual (MARSSIM) NRC and DOE acknowledged, along with EPA, that NRC decommissioning "leads to the unrestricted release of a site." [4][at p. C-14] It is therefore crucial that long-term standards for exposure be determined now, before NRC pulls out.

References & LinksNote on NRC vs. EPA Exposure Standards

CCCC's Dec., 1999 NewsletterCCCC's Home PageSite Index

CCCC's West Valley backgrounder Coalition on West Valley's Home Page

Coalition Crier (newsletter)

Where will nuke wastes go? Find out about Yucca Mountain

Dept. of Energy proposes to avoid a closure EIS (4/10/2001 public meeting)

Concerned Citizens of Cattaraugus County, Inc.
updated 4/8/2001
EPA, Coalition & CCCC comments below
Review comments submitted by  EPA, DOE, NYSERDA, the League of Women Voters of the Greater Buffalo Area, the West Valley Citizens Task Force, the West Valley Coalition, and CCCC by visiting our Archive site.
What is NRC's Draft Policy on West Valley?

The NRC's Draft Policy Statement on decommissioning the West Valley site was published in the Federal Register on December 3, 1999. [1] According to the Policy Statement, NRC seeks to apply its 1997 License Termination Rule (LTR) [2],[6] to West Valley. This action determines what level of human exposure to radioactivity is acceptable once West Valley is decommissioned.
Numbers in brackets refer to references listed separately on our
Notes & References page.