Potential New Threats From Climate Change in West Valley
West Valley in Cattaraugus County, 30 miles south of Buffalo, has been home to high and "low level" nuclear waste since the 1960s when farmland was appropriated to serve as a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility and waste burial ground. The intent was to extract plutonium from nuclear waste from the early atomic energy program. But President Jimmy Carter discontinued commercial reprocessing in 1977 because of the dangers of atomic weapons proliferation. West Valley remains the only commercial site U.S. facility where this failed process was attempted.
According to Diane D’Arrigo of the national Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), West Valley was never a good site for secure storage of nuclear waste because of the nature of the geology that consists of erodible soils laced with waterways that lead directly into the Great Lakes. The potential for a major environmental disaster has been increased with the severe storm events associated with climate change.
The ‘story’ of this dangerous site and the potential of new threats from climate change is the subject of the public presentation on Tuesday, February 26 at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library Auditorium at 7:00 (enter on Clinton Street). This event is sponsored by the Sierra Club Niagara Group, Nuclear Information & Resource Service, Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes, Indigenous Women’s Initiative, WNY Peace Center, Concerned Citizens of Cattaraugus County, and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper among others.
West Valley has a long and complicated history. Many players have been involved. Hundreds of good scientists have engaged it. And some positive action such as the solidification of the high level liquid waste into glass-like logs has occurred. But all that still is lying in our rural landscape along with highly radioactive sludge, unlined pits with boxes and barrels of radioactive waste, and a ground water plume of radioactive strontium moving toward the creek, which empties into Lake Erie just before the Buffalo and Erie County water intakes.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) now have full responsibility for the security and clean-up of the site. They have prepared various environmental reviews since the 1980s and the Record of Decision released in 2010 affirms their decision to carry out Phase 1 (handling just 1% of waste) for the next 10 years. Barbara Warren of the Citizens Environmental Coalition, along with many others, has criticized the 2010 “Final Environmental Impact Statement” because it delays the long term decision of whether the hazardous and radioactive waste should stay at West Valley or be removed, supposedly hinging that decision on studies being done now during Phase 1.
The Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Waste has followed this issue for over 30 years and is one of the founders of the West Valley Action Network comprised of environmental, religious, recreation, sports, labor and other groups and individuals calling for COMPLETE CLEANUP. This is viewed as a practical necessity because the dangers of contamination of the waters of the Cattaraugus Creek and Great Lakes (www.westvalleyaction.org).
A 2008 study, sponsored by NYS Senator Catharine Young, The Real Costs of Cleaning up Nuclear Waste: A Full Cost Accounting of Cleanup Options for the West Valley Nuclear Waste Site, compared the cost of full cleanup now to the cost of leaving it in the ground with a likely radioactive release into the Western New York water supply any time in the next 1,000 years. It is by far less expensive to clean it up now than to risk the consequences to future generations, but it depends on this generation to demand action now.
The Sierra Club Niagara Group is working with the many groups in the West Valley Action Network urging the US Department of Energy and NYSERDA to take action NOW to excavate the radioactive waste to protect the waterways, to stop the strontium plume that is moving toward the creeks, and to ensure that the public is involved in decision-making about next steps. A public meeting, sponsored by the Sierra Club Niagara Group, will be on Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library Auditorium at 7 pm.