Radioactive and hazardous chemical wastes are leaching from the West Valley site into the Cattaraugus Creek, which flows 18 miles along the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians before emptying into Lake Erie. An experimental radiation filter was installed underground to stop a plume of Strontium 90 from spreading, but the filter failed. A much-criticized approach proposed by DOE and NRC for West Valley would avoid digging up the waste before natural erosion washes it into Cattaraugus Creek. (See comments on DOE's Environmental Impact Statement.) GAO has advised that cleanup now will save billions in future costs but so far, DOE has been unwilling to devote $500 million annually (from a $27.5 billion budget) to do the job.
Airborne radioactive elements have been released in substantial amounts over the last four decades. Some of these releases were due to accidents at the site. Some releases were due to natural decomposition of nuclear wastes mixed with other waste.
Releases of radioactive and toxic substances into groundwater and air continue today despite massive cleanup efforts. In addition to the 359 Seneca residents of the Cattaraugus Reservation, the 2,162 people living in the town of Ashford are most directly effected.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WEST VALLEY SITE
Reprocessing of spent fuel rods from military and civilian nuclear power plants between 1966 and 1972 resulted in burial of low-level radioactive waste (LLNW) on 22 acres and burial of high-level radioactive waste on another seven acres.
The facility, closed in 1972, was begun in 1961 by Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS), a subsidiary of W.R. Grace & Co. (the focus of the book and film, "A Civil Action") and American Machine & Foundry, on 3,345 acres of land leased from the State of New York. The Atomic Energy Commission reported in 1966 that 5 million gallons of liquid radioactive wastes were discharged into on-site streams and Cattaraugus Creek, into which on-site streams flow.
These activities were authorized by the State of New York, title owner of the entire site through its agency New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), successor to the Atomic Energy Commission. NYSERDA holds a license from the NRC, which has ultimate jurisdiction over high-level nuclear wastes.
Getty Oil took over the site in the 1970s and continued receiving nuclear fuel rods and dumping nuclear waste until 1976 when, after numerous releases to the ground and atmosphere, public concern over contamination led the DEC to withdraw its permit for discharges into Buttermilk Creek. This, together with more stringent federal regulations and greater economic competition for nuclear waste disposal led NFS to shut the plant down. New York State was left holding the property.
Although cleanup of some high-level nuclear wastes has begun, regarding LLNW the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said, "There is no intent to recover the wastes once they are buried." One question this poses is under what conditions may high-level nuclear wastes, once processed to remove a certain quantity of materials or to dilute those materials,be reclassified as "LLNW?"
The U.S. Department of Energy took over the site in 1981 by an Act of Congress. The West Valley Demonstration Project Act authorized DOE to contract with Westinghouse to undertake a program capturing 100,000 gallons of liquid high-level wastes at a portion of the West Valley site. These waste are processed into glass canisters for on-site storage, a process called "vitrification." The Demonstration Project will also stabilize certain other contaminated buildings and equipment. Each glass canister will have 104,300 curies of radioactivity and generate 311 watts of heat for thousands of years. The project will cost between three and five billion dollars, with New York paying 10% and DOE paying the balance.
REMAINING HAZARDS TODAY
DOE's planned cleanup efforts will still leave substantial amounts of radioactive waste on the site, some containing hazardous chemical wastes, with many materials continuing to migrate away from the site. As noted above, one of the most dangerous areas is the State Disposal Area (SDA), a state-permitted unlined high-level nuclear dump site outside the jurisdiction of either DOE or NRC. Among the hazardous conditions remaining at West Valley are:
--125 spent nuclear fuel rods remain in a large indoor concrete pool;
--Cesium 137 remains detectable at 10-20 percent above background levels on over 100 acres since a 1968 accident blew a ventilation filter into the atmosphere, depositing the pieces on the ground, some several miles to the northwest;
--Strontium-90 is moving 40-60 feet per year through the groundwater at levels up to 346,000 times background levels and, in 1994, emerged at the surface at 30 gallons per minute;
--Numerous monitoring wells measure both radioactive (including Tritium) and hazardous chemical contamination; there are over 100 such wells on the site;
--Both on-site streams and Cattaraugus Creek contain sediments contaminated with Cesium-137 and Strontium-90;
--42 fuel rods in ruptured concrete casings remain buried in one trench;
--Although trenches containing buried nuclear waste are now capped with plastic, methane gas carrying radioactive Tritium continues to be released through the caps;
--Sediments behind Cattaraugus Creek's Springville Dam, which are removed during regular dam maintenance, contain radioactive materials;
--A half-dozen lagoons used for settling contaminated effluent from the old NFS plant contaminate groundwater at the site; wildlife and nearby domestic animals drink at these lagoons;
--A Plutonium-kerosene mixture contaminates soil on the site; this contamination dates from 1983, when 3600 gallons of the mixture once buried there could not be accounted for;
--15,000 drums of high-level nuclear waste in cement remain on the site, estimated to remain "hot" for 12,000 years;
--Stabilizing and dismantling buildings used in the NFS reprocessing plant will not begin until the year 2019.
While studies in the 1970s found high levels of radioactivity in the air, surface water, sediments, crops, fish, deer and other wildlife in and around the 3,345-acre site, subsequent EPA and DOE studies have found these levels are decreasing. However, concern remains high that hunting and fishing, consumption of local crops, and handling of contaminated sediments and other materials in the area will, over time, accumulate radioactive elements in the body.
Finally, certain jurisdictional issues complicate efforts to assure adequate remediation of the site, including cleanup of dangerous wastes that are subject to severe erosion and thus deposition into surrounding surface waters and groundwater. Under the West Valley Demonstration Act, the NRC license has been suspended but not terminated. In 2000 NRC will prescribe cleanup standards to the portion of the site falling within its jurisdiction. Will these standards apply to other portions of the site, or will the site be segmented under different standards? Will segmentation of the site allow some portions to be cleaned up only to be contaminated later by erosion from portions that were not subject to same standards of protection?
The local citizens group Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes provides the most accessible information on the site. In 2003 the Coalition launched its "Dig It Up" Campaign to focus attention on the need for a permanent solution to the progressive erosion of nuclear wastes from the West Valley dump site. NYSERDA and DOE have also established the West Valley Citizen Task Force, which has also recommended that wastes left at the site be dug up and stored above ground until a permanent solution can be designed.