Submitted by Orlando C. Monaco:
The Great Lakes comprise 21% of the world’s fresh water supply and here in WNY we are blessed to have two of these lakes, both Erie and Ontario right at our doorstep. Connected by the mighty Niagara River these waterways have been essential to all of WNY in myriad ways.
Given the importance of these vital fresh water resources would it be acceptable for us to allow a known environmental threat to potentially contaminate them for many generations to come? This question needs to be posed because unfortunately here in WNY we do have such threats, one in particular has existed well over 50 years and has the potential to pollute our waterways with something completely invisible to the naked eye, seemingly undetectable, and so dangerous that exposure to even very minute quantities over time is potentially life threatening.
Located only 30 miles south of Buffalo near the town of Ashford is the Western New York Nuclear Services Center. Over 50 years ago portions of this sprawling complex held the promise of reprocessing spent/irradiated nuclear fuel safely and relatively cheaply. Today it is now known as the West Valley nuclear waste site, a high and low level nuclear waste disposal site that in the past and present is a known contaminate of vulnerable watersheds.
It would be wishful thinking that an environmental threat such as this could somehow be contained and remain somewhat localized but the paths of these contaminants have been detected in trace amounts in waterways from Buttermilk and Cattaraugus Creek in Cattaraugus County all the way to the lower Niagara River delta into Lake Ontario in Lewiston NY. The long term prospects for the West Valley nuclear waste site are even more troublesome; with every passing year the natural forces of erosion increase the probability of a major release of radioactive contamination. If such an event were ever to occur the environmental impact would be devastating with radioactive contamination potentially spreading to Cattaraugus Creek, Lake Erie, Niagara River and eventually Lake Ontario.
Given the potential severity of this environmental threat it may be worth our while to try to answer some key questions on the West Valley nuclear waste site:
•What is the history behind the West Valley nuclear waste site and what environmental threats has it posed in the past?
• What are the present and future environmental threats that this site poses to our water resources?
•What plans are in place to address the present and future threats this site presents?
Let’s first review a brief summary of the history of the West Valley Nuclear waste site so we can better understand how it was created and what past, present and future threats it poses. The site initially started out as the Western New York Nuclear Services Center (WNYNSC) and was formed in 1961 by the NY Office of Atomic Development which is now know as the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). The creation of WNYNSC was prompted by the federal Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) promoting the development of a private sector nuclear industry throughout the United States. Specifically the AEC was prospecting for potential producers of weapons grade uranium and plutonium. One of the means of obtaining these materials was through a process of extracting fissionable uranium and plutonium from irradiated/used nuclear fuel; this is simply known as nuclear reprocessing.
New York State Governor Rockefeller seeing the potential for economic development and job creation in this bourgeoning nuclear industry supported the selection of a private firm, Nuclear Fuel Service, Inc. (NFS) to perform nuclear reprocessing on approximately 705 tons of irradiate/spent nuclear fuel on a 220 acre parcel of WNYNSC site. From 1966 to 1972 NFS completed the majority of its nuclear reprocessing which generated both toxic and high level radioactive waste byproducts all of which were buried in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Disposal Area (NDA) of the WNYNSC site. It also disposed of reactor fuel assemblies units and irradiated metal parts from various government and commercial waste generators to an area of the WNYNSC site known as the State Disposal Area (SDA).
In 1972 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, citing serious radiation safety standards violations, demanded NFS to temporarily cease nuclear reprocessing operations. Unfortunately the damage had already been done; trace amounts of plutonium from the reprocessing of nuclear fuel were found in sediments above the Springville Dam on Cattaraugus Creek and a number of core samples of sediments in the Niagara River delta into Lake Ontario also tested positive for plutonium as well. It was also found that radioactive waste disposed by NFS in the SDA area of the WNYNSC site was only buried in shallow trenches and in 1975 some of these started filling up with ground water and leaking radioactive contamination into surrounding tributaries of Cattaraugus Creek such as Buttermilk Creek.
In 1980 with increasing pressure from environmental activist groups and public outrage over what had transpired at WNYNSC Congress passed the West Valley Demonstration Project Act. This legislation facilitated the transfer of management and operation of the 220 acre nuclear reprocessing site within WNYNSC from the NFS to the Federal Government’s Department of Energy (DOE) and the 220-acre portion of the site was then named the West Valley Demonstration Project (WVDP). The primary focus of the DOE was to perform waste management, decontamination, remediation, and eventually decommissioning of WVDP. One of the initial tasks
undertaken was to put the necessary facilities and infrastructure in place to solidify 600,000 gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste left over from the nuclear reprocessing carried out by NFS. This process is known as vitrification and consists of embedding high level liquid radioactive waste into borosilicate glass which is then poured into large steel canisters. As the DOE moved forward with their preparations for performing vitrification NYSERDA began work on minimizing water infiltration into the SDA by applying a water impenetrable cover over the entire 15 acre parcel. They also installed a series of ground water control barriers and a leachate collection system to pump contaminated water out of the SDA trenches if levels reached a critical overflow point as they had in the past.
In 1996 with all the necessary infrastructure in place the DOE initiated the vitrification process which then continued until 2003. Within that time frame, 20,000 drums of low level radioactive liquid waste solidified in cement was created along with 275 10 ft tall canisters of solidified high level nuclear waste. The drums were eventually moved to a Nevada nuclear waste disposal facility, while the 275 cylinders are to this day housed in the Main Process Plant Building awaiting transport to a currently undefined federal repository. In the years that followed, a somewhat tenuous collaboration between the DOE and NYSERDA continued and a series of Draft Environment Impact Study (DEIS) reports were published between 1996 and 2009. They highlighted the DOE plans for decommissioning WVDP and the short and long term plans for NYSERDA to manage and potentially close the entire WNYNSC site.
WNYNSC, now commonly referred to as the West Valley nuclear waste site, poses a number of serious environmental threats to WNY both today and well into the foreseeable future. Presently, one of the most serious threats, which was originally identified in the early 1990s, consists of a large groundwater plume containing radioactive Strontium-90 migrating North East from the Main Process Plant Building that was formerly used by NFS for nuclear reprocessing. Given this plume’s current trajectory, it will, within the next couple of years, intercept both Erdman and Frank’s Creek both of which are tributaries of Buttermilk Creek. In 2010, in an effort to slow this plumes’ migration the DOE installed an 800+ ft long, 3 ft wide, 30 ft deep underground permeable filtration wall. This wall is composed of over 2000 tons of the compound Zeolite which has the ability to absorb some of radioactive Strontium-90 while allowing ground water to flow through.
Although this massive underground wall has contained some of the Strontium-90, the migration of this plume still continues on its current course unless additional intervention is carried out by the DOE. If this plume were allowed to intercept these creeks radioactive Strontium-90 would eventually make its way into larger waterways such Buttermilk Creek, Cattaraugus Creek, and eventually Lake Erie. With a half life of over 30 years, this type of radioactive nuclide contamination of our water would remain harmful for hundreds of years.
The long term environmental threats posed by the West Valley nuclear waste site in the next 1000 years could vary greatly depending on the course of action the DOE takes in the next century. Two main proposals have been summarized in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement reports issued by the DOE. The first proposal consists of the complete removal of all nuclear waste on the entire site while the second is only concerned with partial waste removal and stabilization of onsite nuclear waste for permanent disposal. One very important and crucial factor that needs to be taken into consideration when evaluating either of these two options is the natural forces of erosion. Landslides, stream undercutting, and gullies are steadily eroding away the plateau that the entire West Valley nuclear waste site resides on and it is only a matter of time before some portions of this site will be compromised.
If the DOE proposal to completely remove all on site waste is undertaken, some estimate that the project would take 73 years to complete at a cost of about 10 billion dollars. The major benefit of this option would be the forces of erosion would not have a chance to pose any serious threat to the integrity of some portions of the site and the site would be completely remediated and closed.
On the other hand, if the DOE selects the second proposal and nuclear waste is left onsite for permanent disposal, the cost and environmental risks of managing this site increases significantly. Depending on whether or not the DOE attempts to maintain erosion control systems, some estimates have the integrity of the State Disposal Area (SDA) being compromised by Franks and Erdman Creek anywhere from a thousand years down to 150 years. The breach of the SDA would be a catastrophic event with the release of high levels of radioactive waste into the local watersheds that would eventually make its way into Cattaraugus Creek and not long after, Lake Erie.
From a cost perspective, the management of the West Valley nuclear waste site, while maintaining nuclear waste onsite for the next 1000 years, has been estimated anywhere from 13 billion to 27 billion dollars depending on whether or not a major radioactive contamination event occurred. Ironically, the DOE currently prefers leaving this nuclear waste on site as the more economical solution as opposed to transferring the waste to a less risk prone disposal site.
The West Valley nuclear waste has established itself as one of the biggest threats to our fresh water resources here in WNY. The initial negligence and mishandling of nuclear waste on this site has left us with a toxic legacy that if not handled appropriately could be detrimental to all of WNY for many generations to come.
Despite the remediation efforts and all the control systems that have been devised to reduce the probability of nuclear waste on this site from contaminating our local waterways, this site still poses a serious environmental threat that residents of WNY must not now or ever ignore. It is now time for the Department of Energy to fully remediate and close this site before all of WNY pays a terrible price.