On West Valley Nuclear Waste Facility

Lynda Schneekloth, Sierra Club Niagara Group

The West Valley Nuclear Waste Facility, 30 miles south of Buffalo, has housed radioactive and toxic waste for over 50 years on a site that should never have been allowed to hold any such waste. It would not be permitted today. The plant was built to reprocess nuclear fuel but the endeavor was problematic from the beginning and was closed in 1972 by its owner, Nuclear Fuel Services. The facility was put in place before there were any regulations on siting nuclear waste. It was, and continues to be, seriously unsuited to contain nuclear and hazardous waste.

There have been releases of radioactive material into Cattaraugus Creek, and Seneca land has been contaminated. If there were a release today, increasingly possible due to the intensity of storms caused by climate change, the Great Lakes and drinking water of millions could (would?) be contaminated. West Valley cannot safely contain radioactive and hazardous material. This is why the Sierra Club and other activist groups are demanding a full clean-up of the site and removal of all toxic material.

In the spring of 2018, the Department of Energy (DOE) and NYS Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) held hearings to prepare for the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to determine the final disposition of the waste on site. Hundreds of NY residents, elected officials and indigenous people are demanding that the waste be dug up and removed from this dangerous location. We expect to see the SEIS report from DOE/NYSERDA this spring and will have the opportunity to make further comment.

Waiting for an official document does not, however, mean that there is any rest on the nuclear front. West Valley and nuclear waste sites across the country are facing a series of deregulation moves by the federal government that would exacerbate the already terrifying risk of radioactive exposure. There is the application by Holtec to open a large nuclear waste dump in New Mexico. If approved by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), it would result in tens of thousands of high-level radioactive waste shipments moving across the country to a “temporary permanent storage site.” More will be coming on this matter in a future issue.

Another deregulatory act is the proposal by the Department of Energy to reclassify High Level Radioactive Waste (HLW) to make it less dangerous simply by changing the definition. The nuclear waste community, NYSERDA and the states of Washington and Oregon, are opposing DOE’s attempt to shift liability for high-level radioactive waste and reinterpret it to be “not high-level radioactive waste.” If approved, this reclassification would remove formerly HLW from the definition and requirements of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that explicitly requires disposition in a high level waste repository.

If HLW were treated as low-level waste, it would be permissible to leave it buried in shallow trenches or left in decades-old leaking underground tanks (with or without grout) that will contaminate the watersheds. Given the precarious and dangerous situation at West Valley, this is totally unacceptable. A further argument is that West Valley is governed by an act of Congress, the “West Valley Demonstration Project Act of 1980” and the definition of waste is not open to interpretation by the Department of Energy.

The Department of Energy has, in the past, attempted to reduce by fiat the dangers of nuclear waste by (a) renaming it “WIR” (Waste Incidental to Reprocessing), (b) changing concentrations of waste to spread it out through dilution, or (c) even declaring some radioactive waste from nuclear weapon production not radioactive so it can be disposed of in the regular trash or sold to commercial recycling for new consumer/industrial goods. Each time the public has vigorously opposed these moves, and will continue to strongly oppose these attempts. We argue that DOE should reject and withdraw this proposal.

The question must be asked: Why this proposal? What purpose does deregulation serve? One can only assume that the intent is to reduce the responsibility and liability of the government to manage this toxic material. Perhaps this is a muddled response to the fact that no one knows what to do with radioactive material that will be dangerous to life for thousands, even millions of years. What we do know is that it is imperative that we stop producing more waste through nuclear energy and production of weapons.

Those of us who live in Western New York believe that the value of our lives and our homes on the Great Lakes is not subject to reclassification. We want “full clean-up,” even as we acknowledge that no one knows what to do with nuclear waste, and there is no place where it can be safely stored for millennia. Yet we do not consent to being exposed to nuclear waste now; we do not have the right to impose exposure on future generations; we will not expose people elsewhere. In spite of the uncertainty of what to do, all of us, especially through our governmental structures and affiliation with groups like the Sierra Club, are responsible to protect the public, environment and future generations from the exposure of all human-made radioactive waste for as long as it remains a threat.