The massive effort to stabilize nuclear waste is near completion, but the future of the site has the federal and state governments battling over a number of issues

Bubbalo News -- April 1, 2002

by John F. Bonfatti

West Valley - The U.S. government has spent about $1.9 billion. As recently as last year, there were about 800 people working here. Yet the West Valley Demonstration Project has operated pretty much below the public's radar for 21 years.

Maybe it's because it is an unwelcome reminder of another long-gone Western New York business whose damage to the environment will have to be dealt with for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Maybe it's because the project deals with scientific principles that aren't easily grasped and ecological degradation that isn't readily visible.

Perhaps it's because the groundbreaking work has gone so remarkably well, with nary a ripple - until now - in the federal-state partnership that shepherded it.

But as the project achieves its chief objective - stabilizing dangerous liquid nuclear waste that threatened to flow from corroding underground tanks into Cattaraugus Creek, Lake Erie and beyond - the debate about what should happen next here is triggering alarm bells.

The issues are:

- The partnership between the federal Department of Energy, which has contributed 90 percent of the money spent here, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which contributed the other 10 percent, has been fractured by contentious negotiations over the site's future.

- The federal budget for the project was cut from $107 million in 2001 to $91.6 million this year, and Congress is threatening more cuts unless the DOE and state come to agreement by the fall.

- The work force here, which remains one of the largest in Cattaraugus County, has been cut in half from its peak of roughly 1,400 in 1994 to about 675, with additional cuts projected.

- Several citizen watchdog groups, as well as state officials, believe the federal government, which was instrumental in the site's original establishment in the 1960s as the country's only commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing center, is eager to wash its hands of West Valley.

"Unfortunately, it sure looks like it," said Bill Flynn, the Western New York native who is president of the state energy authority.

"They want out," said Carol Mongerson, the Concord resident who pushed for the landmark federal legislation that established the cleanup project in 1980.

Alice C. Williams, the site's director for the DOE, said the department still has a lot of work to do before it can leave. "I'm not leaving here any time soon," she said.

By September, Williams said, the vitrification work at the site will be completed. That involves pumping the liquid radioactive waste from the underground tanks, forming it into glass canisters and storing those canisters behind the thick, concrete walls of the old reprocessing building.

In all, 600,000 gallons of this extremely radioactive material has been solidified using pioneering technology the DOE is now employing at two larger sites elsewhere. Eventually, it is destined for a federal waste repository proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nev., which President Bush recently signaled his intention to build.

If it's built - and there are a number of steps before that can happen - the earliest Yucca Mountain could be ready to accept nuclear waste is 2010, so the federal presence here won't end in the near future.

Who will pay the Yucca Mountain disposal fee, currently estimated at about $200 million, and what will happen to the 200-acre project area once that waste is gone? These are the key questions that derailed negotiations between the DOE and the state.

The DOE says New York is obligated to pay the disposal fee.

"The DOE's position is consistent: that (the state) has to sign the standard high-level waste disposal contract," Williams said. "With that contract, there is agreement you pay the fee."

Tentative agreement faltered

During negotiations under the Clinton administration, the DOE's position was more flexible. Flynn said there was a "tentative agreement" that the federal government pay the fee in exchange for the authority's releasing state funds it was holding in reserve, a move the DOE felt would accelerate the cleanup.

Williams confirmed that the proposal was part of the old negotiations but that it was pulled off the table, along with the other tentative agreements that had been reached, when the DOE abruptly declared talks were at an impasse just before Clinton left office.

While compromise on the fee issue was close, the major stumbling block involves who should have control over and responsibility for the site after it has been decontaminated and decommissioned. The DOE interprets the law as saying that "when the decommissioning has been completed, the DOE will return operational control of the site back to New York," Williams said.

But exactly how much decontaminating will be done remains to be seen.

An environmental impact statement currently being prepared will help determine what will be done.The DOE has presented what it calls "a vision" for decontamination that would clean the old processing building, the new vitrification facilities and the underground tanks; turn the buildings into rubble; then entomb the rubble and tanks under a concrete cap.

This bothers the Coalition on West Valley Waste, which wants the material - which will remain dangerous for hundreds of years - kept on the site in above-ground storage, where it could be easily moved off-site later.

There are already two large dumps on the site containing nuclear waste, as well as contaminated groundwater the project is attempting to contain.

"They're making short-term costs lower, but long-term costs are going to be higher," said the Coalition's Mongerson of what has been called the "cheap to keep" approach. "You're going to end up with a higher volume and a much greater problem once the site does finally erode."

Full decontamination sought

The notion of an incomplete decontamination is also unacceptable to the state energy authority, which owns the site and fears it will be stuck with a site that isn't really clean.

"They want to leave before all of the waste is gone from the site," Flynn said. "And underline the word "all.' They should stay. That's their responsibility."

Williams said if the DOE did leave waste behind, "It is DOE's position we would monitor and maintain and repair as necessary in perpetuity," but New York would remain the owner of the site.

Some of the politicians who have been involved in trying to solve the impasse between the DOE and the state said that, regardless of what the DOE is obligated to do under the law, the federal government needs to take the site over.

They say that the federal government developed atomic power, encouraged states to promote non-military uses for it and, in the case of West Valley, supplied the majority of the spent nuclear fuel that was reprocessed.

"This is a clear instance where the federal government should have ownership and oversight," said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-Clarence, who grew up five miles away from the site in Springville. "The federal government has an obligation to remain at West Valley indefinitely."

Reynolds and other members of the New York congressional delegation say their immediate priority is making sure there are no further budget cuts.

Frustrated by the impasse in negotiations, Congress last year slashed $17 million from the West Valley budget, trimming it to $91.6 million. And the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water is threatening to cut an additional $20 million if there's no agreement by Sept. 30.

Rep. Amo Houghton, R-Corning, who represents West Valley, said he has pressed the bosses of those doing the negotiations - Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Gov. George E. Pataki - to get involved. "Unless they do, nothing's going to get done," he said.

The budget reduction was one reason why the site's contractor, West Valley Nuclear Services, cut its work force from 716 in 2001 to 568 as of early last month. About another 100 people work on site for other contractors or government agencies.

James Little, president of West Valley Nuclear Services, said an additional 60 jobs will likely be trimmed in the near future.

Under the Bush administration, the DOE asked West Valley Nuclear Services to develop a plan for accelerating the cleanup. That worries Bill King, supervisor for the Town of Ashford, where the site is located.

"I don't understand why all of a sudden we want to do things fast," he said. "Speed is bound to put us in a disastrous situation."

The contractor's acceleration plan calls for cleaning the tanks, the reprocessing building and the pool, which, until last summer, contained spent nuclear fuel rods. The plan also calls for speeding up ongoing construction of a $31 million remote waste handling facility that will cut up and package radioactive waste.

"This is what our work force is outstanding at: high-level waste handling," Little said. If the plan is adopted, "by 2004, there would be no urgent rush left on site," he said.

Loss of expertise a concern

If the plan is adopted, Little sees West Valley Nuclear Service's work force, which hit a peak of 970 workers in 1994, dropping to about 500.

While some say the specific goals of the project made layoffs inevitable, they bemoan the brain drain of well-trained, highly specialized workers.

Those workers have expertise in handling hazardous waste, and their experience could be invaluable as the project shifts into a decontamination and decommissioning mode.

A loss of technically trained workers could also affect one possible future use for the site that intrigues area economic development officials: a research institute for dealing with dangerous waste.

"We could use this technical capacity to solve other highly difficult problems in the non-nuclear area," asked Mark Mitskovski, who represents Erie County on the citizens task force monitoring the cleanup. "Why throw it away?"