This article is part of an occasional series looking at what happened to local projects and initiatives that were undertaken with great expectations. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions for followup stories.
ASHFORD - What began as a way to attract attention to the state as a location for the atomic industry has resulted in it getting noticed for how to clean up the result of the business.
According to information from staff at the West Valley Demonstration Project, the federal Atomic Energy Act of 1954 resulted in the encouragement of the private reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to commercialize nuclear fuel. New York established an office of Atomic Development in 1956.
The West Valley Demonstration Project sits on the border of Erie and Cattaraugus counties.
In 1961, the state of New York selected 8,500 acres 30 miles southeast of Buffalo as the site where it would store and reprocess nuclear waste. The first such site in the nation to be operated under state auspices, it sought to attract the atomic industry here and help promote economic development.
According to Stan Lundine, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller thought the idea would put the area on the map. That may have been true, but not for what Rockefeller may have thought at first.
Instead, it's the site's cleanup that became memorable.
"We were to be the first in the United States," Lundine said about plans to take leftovers from nuclear energy and reclaim valuable elements from them.
Nuclear Fuels Services began operations on 3,330 acres of the West Valley site. During operations, about 640 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from defense reactors and commercial power reactors was reprocessed in West Valley. There were, however, operational difficulties as worker doses and unplanned releases of radioactive material to the environment took place, according to information from staff at the project. Reprocessing operations were halted to allow $15 million in modifications to be made.
During the shutdown, new requirements were issued related to earthquake and tornado protection, along with waste management, making the modifications more expensive - it would cost $600 million to reopen. Realizing it was not economically feasible to reopen, the reprocessing plant closed in the 1970s after taking in reactor fuel and taking uranium and plutonium for the liquid to make new fuel. It operated from 1966-72, and then went bankrupt and abandoned the plans.
"It is clear that the reprocessing facility at West Valley failed to live up to its high expectations, and, in retrospect, it was a combination of economic factors, technological difficulties and an evolving regulatory framework that led to the failure of the facility," reports the information from project staff.
Lundine remembers the fingerpointing that occurred as the endeavor that was to draw the notice of the country for a successful business resulted in an environmental mess with radioactive waste being left at West Valley.
He said, however, the cleanup of the facility ended up drawing notice and creating jobs after all.
Lundine was elected to Congress to fill a vacancy in 1976.
"I quickly realized the one thing truly unique about the district," he said, adding it had an abandoned commercial nuclear reprocessing facility. Lundine said 600,000 gallons radioactive waste were left in a tank at West Valley; there was waste buried underground, along with other concerns. The gallons of liquid high-level waste was stored in two of four underground storage tanks and the main plant process building, which was highly contaminated. Some areas were inaccessible due to contamination levels and radioactive dose fields.
"I wanted to push a solution to the problems there," he said, adding he was the principal author of legislation to remedy the situation. In 1980, the West Valley Demonstration Project authorized the federal Department of Energy to conduct a cleanup of the site in cooperation with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
"I was very pleased," said Lundine. He said the legislation meant the federal government would pay 90 percent of the clean up costs, and the state would pay 10 percent.
"It turned out to be a much more expensive project than we envisioned," said Lundine, who said $2 billion has been sent to clean up the facility. Despite that, he said, he considers it successful.
"It addressed catastrophic and environmental problems," he said, adding the legislation providing for the cleanup also provided jobs for hundreds of workers for years.
For instance, he said, during the cleanup, it was proven that liquid radioactive waste could be solidified into a glass form, which is not as dangerous, and could therefore be transported off the site; 125 spent nuclear fuel assemblies that were in storage were shipped, the largest single shipment of spent nuclear fuel in the country. Shipment and disposal of 304,800 cubic meters of low-level waste was completed; a permeable treatment wall to mitigate a plume from a spill was installed, as was a drying system to eliminate liquids and moisture from the high-level waste tanks. Processing equipment and piping has also been removed.
"It turned out to be a good thing for people involved in it," he said.
Although Lundine said there will always be disputes about when the property's cleanup will be considered complete, he acknowledges environmental knowledge was gleaned from the work.
A record of decision was recently made, gearing efforts toward a two-phased approach with Phase 1 including some work such as removing the former used fuel reprocessing plant and radioactive water treatment plant. While work is being done to complete that, additional studies of long-term management of disposal areas and underground takes will continue.
Some radioactive waste is still on site including contaminated buildings that were used during operations and 275 10-foot-tall canisters of solidified radioactive waste. There are disposal areas, where radioactive waste was put in the ground and capped, along with underground tanks that had waste, which are empty and being dried. Continual work is being done to get waste off site, and maintain and monitor what is there.
Further decisions are expected to be made within 10 years to select either removal or in-place closure, or a combination, as area residents keep a watchful eye on the progress in hopes of insuring environmental atrocities do not occur as a result of decisions made.
For instance, in 1993 radioactively contaminated groundwater surfaced due to a leak in a process line. The leak is thought to have been a one-time event, with remedies put in place. Environmental concerns remain such as what will happen in decades due to environmental changes such as erosion, movement of soil or earthquake potential. Concerns include whether all waste, such as equipment now buried, should be removed at a high cost or whether it can be safely stored there. Another concern is whether water supplies could be exposed to the radioactive stored material.
Radioactive waste that does remain is being shielded, report officials at the demonstration project, so it is kept away from people. The site is being cleaned up by federal and state agencies. The demonstration project is located on the border of Cattaraugus and Erie counties. It is owned by the New York State Research and Development Authority, also working on the cleanup efforts.