Crisis at West Valley 4 : Cleanup Plans Take Shape


Crisis at West Valley 4 : Cleanup Plans Take Shape


1. Rich Newberg’s story documenting top U.S. energy officials assuring West Valley residents that the massive cleanup effort will be safely conducted with citizen input. The federal government takes possession of the high level nuclear waste burial grounds and the facilities there in about five days. 
A citizens panel led by Peter Skinner is aware of “the technological difficulties of the project, the public sensitivity of the facility, and the hazards of the undertaking…” Westinghouse representative Ray Maison promises to keep the community “fully informed of what we’re doing and what we plan to do every step of the way.” 

However, dairy farmer Emil Zimmerman questions what would happen if the milk from his cows is contaminated with strontium 90. He is concerned about the livelihood of the people in the area. He wants to also know about liability should there be an accident. He says this issue should be considered as a priority as cleanup plans progress.

There is also concern about the Reagan administration’s plans to possibly dissolve the U.S. Department of Energy. The department’s representative,Sheldon Meyers, says if there is “dismantlement,” he believes that “the various functions in the department which are mandated by law or are necessary to do, will be either distributed to other agencies or a new independent agency will be set up.”
(Runs: 3:33)

2. Reporter Rich Newberg questions Jim Duckworth, who ran the Nuclear Fuel Services plant for Getty Oil. Getty purchased the reprocessing facility from W.R. Grace Company in 1969. The first shipments of spent nuclear fuel rods at arrived in 1965, with reprocessing beginning 1966.

A steel storage tank containing 600,000 gallons of high level liquid radioactive must be emptied and converted into a solidified, glass like substance for permanent storage.

During an informational briefing featuring a scale model of the tank, Duckworth explains how the original safety system for high level radioactive waste was compromised. He confirms that the catch basin that sits under the steel tank has a hole in it.

Newberg asks: “Is there a crack in the pan?”

Answer:  “There is a hole in the pan between the pan and the vault.”

He says there is no radioactivity outside the tank. The ‘saucer’ is supposed to be a catch basin for the tank, should there be a spill. Duckworth says “Since that system was compromised, we have put in more sensitive systems that have been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission…”

At the beginning of the briefing, the model is shown to be on a scale of 3/8th“ to a foot. The actual tank measures 70 feet in diameter and is 27 feet high. It sits in a “partial tank” (catch basin) about 5 feet high. It is a “cup and saucer” design. The cup and saucer are sitting in a one-foot thick concrete vault. 

The entire vault is underground sitting on four feet of gravel which is covered with 8 feet of dirt. Outside the vault, water is injected so that the entire area is saturated with liquid. If the vault should crack, Duckworth says the water would leak in. He explains that liquid level detectors are installed inside the vault and inside the pan (saucer). 

Duckworth says there is a 24 inch pipe that extends from the center of the tank up above grade. He says there is an empty spare tank beside the tank containing the waste. If a leak were detected, he says the contents would be pumped into the spare tank. 

Duckworth points out that this was the design technology in 1963. The criteria for the tank’s construction was given to the original reprocessing company by the Atomic Energy Commission.

The tank is described as “mild steel,” which has a high resistance to breakage. Duckworth says the waste put in the tank is neutralized with “caustic” (he says it is the same chemical as oven cleaner). Caustic will not dissolve mild steel. The tank was to be replaced every 50 years. Duckworth says a  test on a piece of pipe from the tank was made in 1977 or ’78 on how much corrosion had taken place. He says it was determined that the tank could last another 400 years if the corrosion rate stayed the same. The maximum temperature of the tank was 240 degrees Fahrenheit. It is now held at 185 degrees F. He says the corrosion rate has been reduced by a factor of two. 

The principle radioactive isotopes in the tank are strontium 90 and cesium 137. They have half-lives of about 30 years. Duckworth notes the scale model is not entirely accurate regarding the piping at the base. 

Video then includes exterior shots of where the tank is stored underground as well as shots of the buildings on the site. 
(Runs: 12:55)

3. Rich Newberg’s overview report on terms of the cleanup agreement at West Valley. New York State Energy Commissioner James LaRocca says the agreement “marks a new era for the federal government in assuming its responsibilities for dealing with this very very difficult problem of nuclear waste disposal.”

90 percent of the projected $285 million dollar cost for the project will be paid by the federal government. 10 percent will be the state’s responsibility. The site is slated to be turned over to the federal government no later than October 1, 1981. The cleanup effort is projected to take 17 years. The high level liquid waste is to be turned into a glass like substance and ultimately removed to a yet unnamed federal repository for permanent storage. 

Commissioner LaRocca says “the agreement precludes the use of West Valley for any other purpose but the solidification removal of these wastes during the conduct of this project.”
(Runs: 1:25) (November, 1980)

[Note: Since the original projections, the cost to clean up nuclear waste at West Valley is estimated in 2020 to be between $5 billion and $10 billion dollars. The hopes of developing a lucrative nuclear fuel reprocessing plant were dashed when the operation shut down in 1972, six years after it began. The State of New York had originally provided a loan of $32 million in 1963 to build the plant. During the course of its operation it brought in $22 million in sales.]

4. The clean-up agreement at West Valley calls for Getty Oil’s Nuclear Fuel Services company to transfer ownership of the high level radioactive site to the federal government. 
(Runs: 0:37)

5. Allen Costantini’s story on the transfer of the West Valley site to the federal government. U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-New York) says the high level waste cleanup effort will serve as a demonstration project for the nation. While the 600,000 gallons of high level radioactive waste will be solidified and removed from the site, there is still a question about the future placement of the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods contained in canisters submerged in a pool of water. New York State Energy Commissioner James LaRocca says that issue will be addressed when a national spent fuel program is put in place.
(Runs: 2:13)

6. Rich Newberg’s story on the U.S. Senate’s vote to consider West Valleys as one of three future sites for the storage of spent nuclear fuel rods. There are 162 metric tons of those rods from nuclear power plants stored at West Valley. The bill would allow trucks to deliver radioactive waste to West Valley or the other sites under consideration in South Carolina and Illinois. U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato (R-New York) is concerned that there would be “incidents” as atomic waste is carried over the nation’s roadways. The Senate bill does not allow radioactive waste to be stored on the property of the nuclear power plants that generated the waste. 
(Runs: 1:53)

7. Emil Jablonski’s story on a public relations effort by Westinghouse to educate citizens about the project to clean up and remove high level radioactive waste from the West Valley site. Ray Maison of Westinghouse gives assurances that the 600,000 thousands of high level liquid waste that will be turned into a glass like substance will not be permanently stored at the site. “No chance at all,” he says. “This is not considered a suitable site for a federal repository.” The public learns that old fuel reprocessing equipment will be decontaminated and removed, so machinery to solidify radioactive waste can be moved in.
(Runs: 2:15)

8. The final federal report on long-term management of liquid high-level radioactive wastes stored at West Valley recommends that the waste be shipped to a federal repository for permanent storage. The federal government, however, still does not have a permanent disposal sight designated. 
(Runs: 0:45)

9. The future of the West Valley site is again in question when the House Energy Committee fails to stop the U.S. Department of Energy from creating radioactive waste storage sites away from nuclear power plants.

Representative Stanley Lundine (D-Jamestown) is concerned that the Senate will view West Valley as “the most convenient dumping ground.” Representative Jack Kemp (R-Hamburg) says that he and Lundine will work to “remove any possibility of West Valley being used either temporarily or permanently as a storage ground for nuclear waste.”
(Runs: 1:14)

10. WIS-TV (Columbia, South Carolina) interview with U.S. Energy Secretary James Edwards, who serves in the Reagan administration. The interview is conducted as a facility in Barnwell, South Carolina is considering opening a privately owned nuclear reprocessing plant. It would be similar to what was once the West Valley operation. 
Edwards says the plant at West Valley had operated successfully for four or five years and then closed down in order to upgrade the operation. He explains that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission changed the rules “in the middle of the stream on them, and they started adding more requirements and more regulations…” 
As a result he says the company said it couldn’t afford what was being required and went out of business. Edwards adds that defense work had been done at West Valley which justifies taxpayers covering cleanup costs.
He said “these weapons helped keep us safe and free.” He calls sites like West Valley “little places that are thorns in our sides and thorns into the future development of nuclear energy…” He says he has “put a lot of emphasis in cleaning those up.” He goes on to say that the country will learn from West Valley because of methods that will be employed to clean up the high level radioactive waste there. 
(Runs: 3:03)

[Note: Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist and staff scientist to the Radioactive Waste Campaign, which fought proposals to reopen West Valley for more nuclear waste, has said upgrades to the plant in 1972 would have cost about $600 million dollars. “In the Sierra Club’s extensive petition to intervene in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s proceeding to expand the plant,” says Resnikoff, “we argued that the plant could not withstand a potential earthquake.” The new conditions that were going to be imposed on the plant required safeguards, should an earthquake occur. West Valley sits on a geological fault line. 
The cost to upgrade was prohibitive and Getty Oil never re-opened the nation’s only commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing plant.] 

11. WIS-TV (Columbia, South Carolina) reporter John Roberts series on lesson learned from the problems at the West Valley nuclear storage site. (This same piece appears in the Crisis at West Valley 1 : Overview report.)

Atomic power plants and the Department of Energy want to open an already built reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel rods in Barnwell, South Carolina. The $350 million dollar plant was built in 1976 (about six years before these reports aired). Uranium and plutonium would be extracted from the fuel rods used in nuclear reactors, and then used again. 

Critics of opening the plant point to problems at West Valley as a good reason not to allow the plant to open. 

Reporter Roberts points out that the West Valley plant closed in 1972 after operating for six years. He says the reprocessing plant had suffered $42 million dollars in losses. The costs of removing 600,000 gallons of highly radioactive liquid and sludge will cost a lot more, reports Roberts. He also shows the 163 metric tons of radioactive fuel assemblies stored at the bottom of cooling tanks at West Valley. The tanks hold 615 canisters filled with spent fuel rods. Utility companies that had sent the rods refuse to take them back. The water in the tank must be recirculated, cooled and purified in order to prevent the rods from heating the tank to 185 degrees. 

Using footage provided by WIVB-TV and gathered by reporter Rich Newberg and photographer Jay Lauder, reporter Roberts shows the start of cleanup and testing operations at West Valley. The contaminated cell where uranium was once removed is entered by radiation experts in protective gear. Roberts reports that their task is to determine the level of radioactivity lodged in the cement walls and piping. The same cell might be used to during cleanup operations when the high level radioactive liquid waste is converted into a solid glass like substance. Engineers are now predicting the cleanup at West Valley could go as high as one billion dollars. 

In the series, West Valley dairy farmer Emil Zimmerman speaks at a meeting about concerns that milk from his and other farmers’ cows could become contaminated with strontium 90. 

As South Carolina is learning about the problems at West Valley, the federal government is seeking out companies that might be interested in opening the plant at Barnwell. U.S. Energy Secretary James Edwards says the country needs plutonium for research programs. He adds that plutonium is also needed to “fire our breeder reactor.” Edwards is negotiating with a dozen companies saying the U.S. would buy the plutonium produced at Barnwell. He says reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods could become “a viable commercial venture.” Critics say such operations would become a financial and technical failure. 

Reporter Roberts also points out potential risks to workers maintaining operations in a plant dealing with high levels of radioactive waste. He notes that the West Valley plant once “chopped up” nuclear fuel rods, dissolved them in acid, and then separated uranium and plutonium from other radioactive elements. He further notes that the work was done behind thick concrete walls and leaded glass because exposure to gamma and beta rays can cause cancer and genetic damage. (This same piece appears in the Crisis at West Valley 1 : Overview report.)

12. Exterior and interior video of West Valley nuclear storage site. Some off-camera narration as reporters are given a tour. Depth of pool holding spent nuclear fuel rods is 44 feet.  Caution sign reads CONTAMINATED ZONE 4  HIGH RADIATION AREA   AIRBORNE RADIOACTIVITY AREA. Line of robotic arm controls in front of glass enclosed cells. Sign: SAFETY GLASSES REQUIRED IN THIS AREA  CAUTION RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS. Control room. Panel of controls.  Closeup shot of buttons to sound evacuation alarm. Fenced exterior shots of property. More exterior shots including NFS blue building. 
(Runs: 2:48)
13. Rich Newberg’s report with photographer Jay Lauder documenting the first tests conducted by Westinghouse experts inside a radioactive cell where uranium was extracted from spent fuel rods. The tests are to help establish the best techniques for preparing the facility for the task of solidifying the high level liquid radioactive waste sitting in an underground storage tank at West Valley. (This same piece appears in the Crisis at West Valley 1 : Overview report.)

[Note: The U.S. demonstration project that formally got underway in 1981 is still in progress in the year 2020. The cleanup project could end up costing taxpayers $5 billion to $10 billion dollars.]


1981 - 1982


Rich Newberg Reports Collection


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


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