The Buffalo News - Western New York

West Valley plan gets chilly reception

DOE prefers to keep some nuclear waste on site until 2010

By JOHN F. BONFATTI

News Staff Reporter

10/22/2003

WEST VALLEY - The Department of Energy publicly unveiled its preferred alternative for project completion at the West Valley Demonstration Project Tuesday night, and the reception was somewhere between cool and very cold.

Bob Warther, the DOE field officer manager who oversees the site, told the Citizens Task Force monitoring the cleanup that it would like to adopt a policy similar to one used in closing nuclear plants.

Under the so-called "SAFSTOR" approach, the high-level waste that was removed from rotting underground tanks and turned into more-manageable solid canisters would remain at West Valley until the government builds its storage vault under Yucca Mountain, Nev.

"We cannot complete the project until Yucca Mountain opens," Warther told the citizens group. At the earliest, Yucca Mountain, which would house much of the country's high-level nuclear waste, isn't expected to be completed until 2010.

In the meantime, Warther outlined a plan that would see much of the lower-level waste on the site trucked off-site and retain a remote waste handling building currently under construction while removing most of the other buildings on the site.

Under the DOE preferred alternative, most of the site would be placed in a low-maintenance mode once those steps are accomplished, which is projected to be 2008.

"All of this is driven to get surveillance and maintenance costs at a minimum while protecting the public while we wait for Yucca Mountain," Warther said.

The canisters are now being stored behind the thick concrete walls of the original reprocessing center.

Once the canisters are removed, Warther said that the government's plan is to leave the now nearly empty underground tanks and, after removing as much radioactivity as possible, demolish the old reprocessing building.

The rubble would then be filled with grout, and a man-made barrier would be put in place around the buildings remains and the tanks. A ground-level cap would then be placed over the building's ruins.

That proposal didn't sit well with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the DOE's partner in the cleanup, or with many members of the task force.

Peter Smith, the authority's acting president, said the DOE's preferred alternative would limit the decontamination work and delay the eventual closing of the site.

"We want to push more cleanup at West Valley sooner, rather than later," he said, adding that any delay would blunt the momentum accomplished at the 20-year-old project.

The authority and the DOE have been at odds for years on a variety of issues concerning the future of the site. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is who will be responsible for the long-term surveillance and monitoring of the site if waste is left there.

Elizabeth Lowes, the DOE's acting director for West Valley, said that by the DOE's interpretation of the law establishing the project, the department does not have to remain on the site long term.

"We don't believe we have the authority to do that," she said.

"That's the first time we've heard words to the effect that the DOE wants out of long-term stewardship, and that's disturbing to us," said Task Force member Tim Siepel.

Mark Mitskovski, Erie County's representative on the task force, added, "If the DOE was serious, they would say, "It's our area, let's see what we can do about it. "

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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