Crisis at West Valley 1 : Overview


Crisis at West Valley 1 : Overview


This series of reports deals with the challenges involved in cleaning up one of Western New York’s most toxic hot spots, located in West Valley, about thirty miles south of Buffalo. 

Initial projections for the cleanup of radioactive waste pegged costs at $235 million dollars. The project, it was thought, would take seventeen years to complete. By 2018 the amount spent totaled $2.3 billion dollars. The full cleanup price tag could be in the range of $10 billion dollars, according to earlier estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy.  

In 2020, forty years after the site was declared a National Demonstration Project, efforts were still underway to dismantle and remove the remaining contaminated buildings still standing on the site. Other efforts were focused on either dismantling and removing radioactive waste material from burial and storage areas or making them more secure. Environmental watchdog groups continue to raise serious questions about public safety and health.

WIVB-TV, the CBS affiliate in Buffalo, closely covered the West Valley story and presented many reports that focused on the grassroots efforts that helped shape the massive cleanup project. The movement grew in intensity as New York State and the federal government considered proposals to accept more nuclear waste at the site. 

This overview is the first of five groups of television news reports, videos, and films documenting the political, economic, and social processes that led to a forty-year cleanup effort that is still in progress. The multi-billion-dollar undertaking continues to serve as a national demonstration project. 

The reports and summaries that follow are compiled by WIVB-TV senior correspondent (ret.) Rich Newberg. He played a major role in covering initial events as they unfolded in the early 1980s. 

Overview Summary: (1979 - 2020)                

1. The Nuclear Waste Challenge
CBS report by Robert Schackne lays out the challenge: 1979
“Some 600,000 gallons of lethally radioactive liquid waste that must be disposed of by a technology that has never been developed.” 

2. Migrating Radioactive Waste
WIVB-TV report by Rich Newberg: 1982
Sand “lenses” in trenches containing low level nuclear waste provide paths for migration of contaminated rain water. Sierra Club issues a warning that the “flaky” bedrock is not a suitable barrier.  

3. Lessons Learned the Hard Way
Reports by WIS-TV, Columbia South Carolina: 1983 
Problems at West Valley lead to a rethinking of plans to activate a similar privately-owed nuclear reprocessing plant in Barnwell, South Carolina.

4. Who Would Accept Radioactive Waste?
CBS report by Bill Curtis: 1982
The small Texas Town of Tulia considers accepting radioactive waste from sites such as West Valley. Tulia sits on top of one of the biggest salt beds in the country. Salt beds are one of three geological formations deemed suitable by the federal government to store radioactive waste. 

5. West Valley Chosen for a National Demonstration Project (1980)
WIVB-TV Report by Allen Costantini: 1982
Ten years after Nuclear Fuel Services stopped operations at West Valley, control of the site is turned over to the state and federal governments and the Westinghouse Corporation. Westinghouse is the primary contractor hired to clean up the site at West Valley. The 600,000 gallons of high-level liquid waste is to be solidified into a glasslike substance and then moved to a secure storage outside of the region.
6. Entering the First Radioactive Cell for Testing 
WIVB-TV Report by Rich Newberg: 1983
Rich Newberg and photographer Jay Lauder cover the first tests conducted by Westinghouse experts inside a radioactive cell where uranium was extracted from spent fuel rods. The tests would help establish the best techniques for preparing the facility for the task of solidifying the high-level liquid radioactive waste. 

7. Storing the High Level Radioactive Waste
Video by CHBWV West Valley Decommissioning Team: 2015
The West Valley Demonstration project becomes the first site in U.S. history to place high level radioactive waste into long term outdoor storage. This video traces the history of the nation’s first and only commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing plant and the enormous task of cleaning up the waste it generated during its six year run, from 1966 to 1972. (see West Valley File 5 of 5 in this collection for present and future safety concerns.)

West Valley is located In the Cattaraugus County Town of Ashford. It is here where Nuclear Fuel Services once served as the nation’s only commercial plant that reprocessed spent nuclear fuel rods used to produce atomic energy. The rods contained plutonium and uranium which could be recovered for reuse. The first rods were delivered to the plant in 1966, but when federal regulations toughened, the costs were deemed too much to bare. The plant closed in 1972.

The entire site initially became the responsibility of the state of New York. In 1961 the state had bought and leased 3,300 acres of West Valley land for atomic industrial use. The plant was first owned by a subsidiary of the W.R. Grace Company, which later sold the operation to Getty Oil. 

The Cleanup Challenge
Hundreds of thousands of gallons of high-level radioactive liquid waste needed to be removed from underground steel storage tanks located on an eight-acre burial ground site. Another fifteen acres of burial land is also of major concern because it served as one of the nation’s six commercial burial grounds for radioactive waste. The material was buried in unlined soil trenches and included at least fourteen pounds of plutonium. Yet another burial site contained waste from the reprocessing operations at West Valley, including damaged irradiated fuel. This waste was buried in fifty-foot-deep holes.  

Environmental activists, scientists from the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, and professors from the University at Buffalo pointed out that the trenches were geologically unstable, and that ground water could be contaminated and migrate from the site. In addition, the area is situated on a fault line and is potentially susceptible to earthquakes. 

A group called The Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes was formed in 1974. Some of its members specialized in technical aspects of radioactive waste disposal and health effects of radiation. The Coalition began putting pressure on the state and federal governments to have the West Valley site stabilized and cleaned up. It also fought against proposals to have additional nuclear waste material brought to the site for burial, incineration, other waste processing, or disposal. 

The Coalition played a major role in the creation of the West Valley Demonstration Project Act which was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. It gave the U.S. Department of Energy the responsibility to solidify the high-level waste. It also granted the D.O.E.  the authority to address the issues involved in decontaminating and decommissioning the facilities. West Valley is believed to be the only radioactive waste site in the country with its own act of Congress.  

In 1982, the federal government took control of two hundred acres at the West Valley site, including the underground high level radioactive waste tanks, the high level waste burial grounds, and the contaminated buildings where nuclear fuel rods had been reprocessed. 

In 1985 Congress required states to assume responsibility for the storage and management of what it termed “low level” radioactive waste generated within their borders. Watchdog groups say much of this waste is “high level” and dangerous. At West Valley, New York State maintains control over the fifteen acres of “low level” burial grounds mentioned above. This area had closed in 1975 after radioactive water had filtered through an inadequate landfill cap and found its way into surrounding streams that eventually drain into Lake Erie.

The greatest challenge to the federal government was finding a company that was capable of turning the liquid high level waste into a solid and more stable material for storage. Between 1996 and 2002, Westinghouse removed most of the high level liquid waste from the underground tanks and converted it into glass logs. It used a process known as vitrification. 275 intensely radioactive logs were formed and initially stored deep in the bowels of the reprocessing building, which helped provide shielding from the radioactivity.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy selected the company that goes by the name CH2M HILL BWXT West Valley, LLC as its contractor. Its tasks were to secure the storage of the high-level waste and to demolish the closed radioactive buildings and the underground piping. 

In order to secure the storage of what came out of the underground tanks, 275 stainless steel canisters containing the vitrified waste were placed in steel-lined giant concrete storage casks, each weighing 87 1/2 tons.

A 16,000 square foot reinforced concrete storage pad now holds 56 casks for what is termed “long term passive storage.” The casks are certified to hold the high-level waste for fifty years. Since there is no designated national repository for high level nuclear waste, the material must remain on the grounds of the West Valley site, at least for now.

A coalition of radioactive waste experts and concerned citizens prevented more waste from coming into West Valley and has been providing oversight of cleanup efforts since the late 1970s. As final decisions for the site are expected to be made by 2022 or 2023, critical issues of health and safety continue to be raised by these citizen watchdogs. (See File 5 of 5 in this collection for detailed concerns involving air and water contamination.)
In May 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy said its Office of Environmental Management “is continuing to make safe and steady progress with decommissioning activities at the West Valley Demonstration Project. 

With regard to ongoing concerns by citizen watchdog groups, the DOE statement reads, “The goal of the extensive demolition activity air and radiation monitoring program is to detect any change in radiological conditions, so that work can be slowed, modified, or even stopped to protect employees, general public and the environment.  The work is carefully planned and carried out such that all contamination is controlled within the boundaries of the demolition area. (See File 5 of 5 in this collection for the full statement by the U.S. Department of Energy.)


1979 - 2020


Rich Newberg Reports Collection


WIVB (Television Station: Buffalo, N.Y.)
Buffalo & Erie County Public Library
(publisher of digital)


Copyright held by WIVB-TV. Access to this digital version provided by the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. Videos or images in this collection are not to be used for any commercial purposes without the expressed written permission of WIVB-TV and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. Users of this website are free to utilize material from this collection for non-commercial and educational purposes.