Crisis at West Valley 5 : Present and Future Concerns


Crisis at West Valley 5 : Present and Future Concerns


The following videos show progress made in cleaning up the West Valley radioactive waste site. They include the solidification of the high level liquid waste that had been in underground tanks and the demolition of contaminated buildings. They also include the on-site storage of high and low level radioactive waste and the removal of some of this waste from the site.

Since the mid-1970s citizen watchdog groups including experts in the field of nuclear waste have expressed concern about the health, safety and environmental issues involved in the storage and management of nuclear waste at West Valley as well as the subsequent efforts to clean up the site.

In 2020, decisions still must be made on how much nuclear waste can be left in trenches, holes, tanks and the below-ground portion of the building that once reprocessed spent nuclear fuel rods.

Watchdog groups continue to express concerns that the site itself is on rapidly eroding plateaus surrounded by creeks that drain through the Seneca Nation of Indians into Lake Erie. They warn that there is a potential for this erosion to reach the underground nuclear waste and release long-lasting dangerous radioactive materials into the Great Lakes.


1. Huge steel lined concrete casks provide on-site storage of high level radioactive glass logs converted from liquid waste at West Valley.
56 casks holding the high level waste are stored above ground on the property of the West Valley Demonstration Project site. They sit on a reinforced concrete slab until they can be shipped out to a national nuclear waste repository yet to be named. The casks each hold five canisters containing the glass logs which will remain highly radioactive for thousands of years. Each cask weights close to 90 tons. The high level waste needed to be removed from the plant at West Valley so building demolition could take place.
[“HLW Progress Video” produced by DOE contractor CH2M HILL BWXT WEST VALLEY, LLC. ; 7/7/2016 ; Runs: 1:58]

2. Transporting highly radioactive building material from West Valley to Texas.
When U.S. Department of Energy Took over West Valley site it had to solidify 600,000 gallons of high level radioactive waste. The process, called vitrification, turned the liquid into glass like rods. While the solidified high level waste is still stored on-site at West Valley, the equipment used for the vitrification process then had to be safely packaged and disposed of off site. Each of three vessels containing highly radioactive dismantled parts from the “Melter” were loaded onto special trailers with 130 tires. They were then transported from West Valley, through neighborhoods, to the rail yard in Blasdell, New York. The giant containers were then taken by rail to waste control specialists at a site in Andrews, Texas.
[“Melter Shipment “ Video” produced by DOE contractor CH2M HILL BWXT WEST VALLEY, LLC. ; 12/14/2016 ; Runs: 3:57]

3. Resident records radioactive waste from West Valley rolling through his neighborhood.
A citizen reacts to a huge vessel containing dismantled parts from the “Melter” being transported through his neighborhood. He provides a short narrative along with what he captures on video.
[Posted on YouTube by “Robert” ; October 26, 2016 ; Runs: 1:36]

4. Second radioactive waste transport video posted on YouTube by “Robert”.
A week after recording the first transport of radioactive waste through his neighborhood, “Robert” posts a second video showing how the special trailer carrying its radioactive load, negotiates the crossing over railroad tracks.
[November 2, 2016 ; Runs: 2:33]

5. Demolition of radioactive buildings begin at West Valley.
Demolishing the building where high level liquid radioactive waste was turned into a glass like substance - This radiological demolition requires continuous monitoring and specialized equipment. Continuous air monitors provide a real time read out for the protection of personnel on-site as well as the public and the environment. Citizen watchdog groups have strongly recommended that real time off-site monitoring of the air take place when demolition of the Main Processing Building is carried out. (See Requests by Citizen Watchdog Groups below.)
[“VIT DEMO V4” produced by DOE contractor CH2M HILL BWXT, WEST VALLEY, LLC. ; 12/19/2017 ; Runs: 4:28]

6. The decisions that will impact generations to come.
This presentation produced by Diane D’Arrigo summarizes concerns by citizen watchdog groups and environmental experts who have been tracking developments at the West Valley nuclear waste site since the mid-1970s. Using original photographs and graphics, she presents the history of radioactive wastes at the site and concerns about the present and future storage of this hazardous material. Ms. D’Arrigo is a native of Western New York who now serves as the Radioactive Waste Project Director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS). She has been with NIRS since 1986 and has a degree in chemistry and environmental studies as well as work experience in analytical chemistry and biological research.
[NARRATED SLIDE PRESENTATION produced by Diane D’Arrigo, Radioactive Waste Project Director/Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) ; 5/18/2020 ; Runs: 20:25]

Request by Citizen Watchdog Groups

In 2006 the West Valley Action Network was created, comprised of local, state, regional, and international organizations. This network is pushing for a full cleanup of the West Valley nuclear waste site as soon as possible. It is providing public oversight for demolition, cleanup, and storage operations.

The state and federal governments have commissioned a $4.3 million-dollar assessment study to determine the best way to proceed for the final cleanup phase. The study could take two to three more years to complete (2022-2023).

As final plans are made, the Action Network is insisting on full disclosure of all information and assumptions used by the Department of Energy and the New York Energy Research and Development Authority to make decisions. The Network has also requested that a searchable electronic library be created to facilitate independent review of details.

The next big physical challenge as of 2020 is the demolition of the main building where the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods took place from 1966 to 1972. The Action Network has called for the U.S. Department of Energy to provide the region with comprehensive real-time monitoring and reporting of the air — before, during, and after the demolition of the highly contaminated Main Plant Processing Building.

One of the Action Network organizations, The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), has issued warnings about the potential spread of radioactivity in the air and water downstream and downwind of the West Valley site. NIRS is an activist organization that supports renewable energy and opposes nuclear power.

Diane D’Arrigo, a Western New York native who serves as the Radioactive Waste Director for NIRS, says the Main Plant Building may be “the most intensely radioactive building in the nuclear power and weapons fuel chain…” She points out that the D.O.E. and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the state agency responsible for the fifteen-acre burial site, “refuse to monitor offsite in real time…” She says, “The general population and local government officials are entitled to know if radioactivity has contaminated the air as the massive cleanup effort continues.”

D’Arrigo warns that “some of the radioactivity from the West Valley site will stay radioactive for hundreds, thousands, millions of years--so the contamination is irreversible. Some long-lasting radioactivity from West Valley operations between 1966 and 1972 has been detected throughout Western New York on land and in water as far as Lake Ontario.”

During the time the plant was active, there was a spill in the basement. Strontium 90, among many radioactive isotopes, made their way from the basement into the ground water. A radioactive plume is now a quarter of a mile long. The Department of Energy has used Zeolite, a special kind of clay, to absorb the radioactive material. This “interceptor wall” is 900 feet long and 20 feet deep. However, Joanne Hameister, a research analyst who has spent forty years representing the public’s interest at West Valley, notes that water has a way of rerouting itself. She believes removing the source of the leaking Strontium and the contaminated soil would be a better solution, although very costly.

“If the plume keeps on moving,” she says, “it can hit a bunch of creeks. That plateau is loaded with creeks. They all lead into Buttermilk Creek, which drains into Cattaraugus Creek, which drains into Lake Erie. That is right around the corner from Sturgeon Point, where Erie County gets its water. Strontium 90 takes three hundred years to decay to levels that are more difficult to detect.

Right now, there are no plans to remove the earth or massive network of pipes under the Main Processing Building when demolition is carried out. Hameister says she is also concerned about the workers who will take part in the project. “That place is hot. There has to be a lot of worker protection.” She also wants assurances there will be some kind of protective covering over the building while it is being dismantled. “They’ll be chopping up walls,” she says. “They have to monitor the excursion from the site during that process. You just don’t want that stuff flying around.”

In addition, there is concern that soil erosion resulting from floods in 2009 is making its way closer to the trenches where radioactive waste is buried. Future flooding, say members of the West Valley Action Network, could potentially threaten releases of radioactive elements into brooks and creeks that eventually feed into Lake Erie.

The Department of Energy installed an “armor wall” in 2019 to slow down the erosion. Hameister says the wall was installed without public input, which she says was a violation of the legal agreement between the Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes and the Department of Energy. She questions whether there might be other issues to which the public isn’t aware.

Response by U.S. Department of Energy (5/8/2020) Brian Bower/West Valley Demonstration Project Director, DOE

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Environmental Management is continuing to make safe and steady progress with decommissioning activities at the West Valley Demonstration Project (WVDP). After successfully completing the solidification of 600,000 gallons of high-level radioactive waste (HLW) liquid into a highly durable glass material in 2006, the focus of the Project shifted to removing the old, highly contaminated reprocessing facilities and the facilities used in the solidification of the HLW. In 2018, DOE safely completed the demolition of the Vitrification Facility, a 50-foot tall, 10,000 square foot nuclear facility where the HLW was converted into glass. The demolition of the Vitrification Facility represented the largest and most complex demolition of a radioactively contaminated facility at the WVDP to date. Prior to that, the Department demolished the site’s 01-14 Building, a former building that treated processed off-gases from the Vitrification Facility and a number of support facilities.

DOE is now preparing to embark on the demolition of the Main Plant Process Building (MPPB), the central facility used in the commercial spent nuclear fuel reprocessing operation. This facility is the largest and most contaminated building on the site. In preparing the MPPB for demolition, the Department of Energy removed a number of contaminated support facilities surrounding the MPPB, and completed extensive deactivation work inside the highly reinforced building before beginning the carefully planned, controlled and monitored demolition activity. The agency has also demolished over 40 additional site facilities and upgraded the site’s infrastructure to support the work, including the water supply, gas supply and distribution, electric service, and IT systems.

Radiological, industrial, and environmental safety are foremost considerations in planning and executing demolition of the MPPB. The work planning process for the demolition of the MPPB brought to bear the extensive experience of the site’s workforce, industry best practices and lessons learned from the demolition of the Vitrification Facility and similar facilities across the country. Throughout the demolition work, onsite activities will be monitored and controlled in real-time to ensure worker, public and environmental safety.

The Environmental Monitoring Program at the West Valley Demonstration Project has been part of the ongoing cleanup efforts since the beginning of the Project in 1982. The monitoring program includes sampling to evaluate the surface water, groundwater and air. Along with demolition air and radiation monitoring, on-site and off-site air, surface water, drinking water, sediment, soil, venison (deer), fish, milk, and food crop samples will be collected before, during, and after demolition.

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.

As DOE begins another important phase of the WVDP’s work at West Valley, we welcome all interested members of the public to attend our Quarterly Public Meetings and Citizen Task Force meetings to ask questions and hear about progress on this very important work. Site background information and all environmental information can also be found on the WVDP website at


1979 - 2020


Rich Newberg Reports Collection


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