The land for the West Valley Nuclear Service Center was acquired by the state in 1961. It was leased to Nuclear Fuels Services (NFS), a private company which operated a nuclear fuel reprocessing operation. Two burial grounds, one for commercial radioactive waste and one to dispose of waste from the reprocessing operation were dug in the early 1960s.
Nuclear Fuel Services
Reprocessing of nuclear fuel began in 1966, creating 600,000 gallons of high-level liquid waste stored in carbon steel tanks. Careless maintenance and poor design decisions led to increasing contamination during the six-year operation. A filter blowout in 1968 deposited cesium off site to the northwest.
In 1972, under threats from the Atomic Energy Commission, NFS shut down to clean up the extensive contamination. By 1975 the SDA, a burial ground that held commercial radioactive waste, was leaking. Radioactive material was deposited in Buttermilk and Cattaraugus Creeks. Millions of gallons of radioactive water were pumped out.
Nuclear Fuel Services applied for a license to expand and operate a larger facility. Citizens became concerned and the Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes was formed. The Coalition intervened in the licensing proceedings and pressed for a safe clean up.
In 1976, NFS decided to abandon reprocessing leaving the wastes to the State of New York. Plutonium was found in the Springville Dam two years later.
Studies and Legislation
The Department of Energy (DOE) studied the facility and issued a report in 1978. The Coalition lobbied Congress to take responsibility for the site. Through the efforts of Rep. Stanley Lundine, the West Valley Demonstration Project Act (WVDP) was passed in 1981. It directs the DOE to solidify the high-level liquid wastes, clean up and close the site. In 1982 an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) was written. West Valley Nuclear Services, a subsidiary of Westinghouse, was selected as the prime contractor. Vitrification, mixing the waste with melted glass, was chosen as the method for solidification.
West Valley Demonstration Project
The integrity of the tanks which stored high-level waste were tested and a characterization of the whole site was done. In 1984 a test melter for the vitrification was built and tests with non-radioactive chemicals began. The majority of the unreprocessed fuel assemblies were shipped back to the utilities they came from.
The liquid high-level wastes needed pretreatment to reduce the volume. Pretreatment would create waste so the DOE issued an Environmental Assessment of how they would do this in 1986. The Coalition and Sierra Club Radioactive Waste Campaign protested that a full Environmental Impact Study should be done and went to court to get the DOE to do one. After a year of negotiation an out-of-court compromise was reached in which the DOE agreed do the EIS and the Coalition agreed that the project could proceed as long as the project wastes were held in retrievable storage pending decisions about final closure of the whole site.
The pretreatment of the high level liquid waste began in 1988. The liquid waste was pumped from the tank and filtered. In 1995 the high-level part of the waste was sent to the melter for vitrification. The lower level waste was mixed with cement and poured in drums, which are being held in storage as per the lawsuit compromise.
During the last cold run test of the melter a trough used to transfer the melted glass to stored canisters broke, spilling the melted glass. Supports for the trough were missing, having been omitted from the melter blueprints. Although the backup trough had supports, it was necessary to install the missing supports in order to maintain a backup system. Vitrification of the treated high-level waste was started in 1996. With no more major hitches, vitrification was completed in 2002. The radioactive solid material remains on site.
One of the burial grounds called the NRC-licensed Disposal Area (NDA), held highly radioactive waste from the fuel reprocessing operation. Plutonium began leaking from it in 1983. A few waste tanks in the leaking holes were exhumed in 1986 and found to have ruptured welds and lids sealed with duct tape. Other tanks buried at same time have not been exhumed and may leak in the future.
North Plateau Underground Radioactive Plume
In 1992, the DOE discovered an underground plume of radioactivity on the northern plateau of the site that was leaking into the watershed. Monitoring wells were dug and the source of plume was determined to be from under the reprocessing building. Highly radioactive liquid had leaked in the 1960s and was now showing up in this plume.
Water from the plume was pumped and treated. This program, while helpful, created a lot of waste filter medium and was not as efficient at stopping waste from leaking out as hoped. When a second prong developed an underground clay filter wall was installed to intercept and filter it. The plume circumvented this wall. Sheet piling failed to stop it. The problem remains unsolved.
Closure of the West Valley Site
In a 1987 lawsuit settlement with the Coalition, the DOE had agreed to do a full Environmental Impact Study on the eventual closure of the site. A draft of this EIS(DEIS) was issued in 1996. The DOE established a Citizen Task Force. They were commissioned by the DOE to give input on the DEIS. Their final report called for removal of all waste from the site.
The DEIS gave varying alternatives on how to clean up and close the site. Because of the high costs, the DOE did not want to choose one of the options given. Four years later, the DOE decided to split the EIS into two parts rather than choosing one of its alternatives. The first part, the Waste Management EIS, will cover cleanup of the facility. The second part, the Closure EIS, will settle the more difficult question of final closure of the site.
This move allowed the DOE to avoid certain problems with the 1996 EIS, for example, troubling erosion predictions and unacceptable levels of exposure to radioactivity from the high-level waste tanks. The Coalition has initiated a second lawsuit. The DOE has violated the contract signed with the Coalition because they have not completed the Draft EIS. More than that, they are attempting to leave dangerous materials on site by renaming them, recalculating acceptable exposure levels and burying them where they are.