The Buffalo News - Western New York - NUCLEAR WASTE

Agency may leave West Valley by 2008

By JOHN F. BONFATTI

News Staff Reporter

2/18/2004

The Department of Energy, the lead agency in the nuclear waste cleanup at West Valley, plans to leave the Cattaraugus County site by 2008, according to its new draft statement of projected work there.

"That's the impression I have," said Paul Piciulo, project director at West Valley for the DOE's partner in the cleanup, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which has been at odds with the DOE about the site's future.

T.J. Jackson, the DOE's acting director at West Valley, disputed that the DOE is planning to walk away.

"I think that's a stretch," said Jackson, who conceded that the plan might be perceived as "a major departure from the perception that DOE was going to be here forever."

Under a plan DOE officials will detail to a citizens group tonight, the agency outlines a strategy that would have its contractor pack and ship away whatever radioactive waste it can that was generated by the 20-year West Valley Demonstration Project.

The DOE would walk away, at least temporarily, from the high-level waste that was removed from corroding underground tanks and transformed into a more stable glass-like solid. That waste is being stored in canisters behind the 4-foot-thick walls of the original nuclear fuel reprocessing building, which was operated by a private company in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The cleanup of the site has cost at least $2 billion.

The DOE will ship the West Valley canisters to the government's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada - if it is developed and the issue of who will pay the storage fee is resolved. The earliest projected opening of Yucca Mountain is 2010, although the project still has a number of regulatory obstacles to overcome.

The underground tanks at West Valley would remain in place, as would the original reprocessing center, an underground ground water plume contaminated with strontium and a 5-acre federally licensed radioactive waste dump.

"The tanks are not closed (and) we know that's a DOE responsibility," Jackson said. "We're working on the final closure environmental impact statement, which will tell us when we're done how to close the tanks."

Jackson said the DOE also plans to decontaminate the interior of the old repro cessing building, which is "more than DOE ever said it was going to do."

But the ground water plume and the dump, he contended, are not the responsibility of the federal government under the provisions of the federal law that established the project.

The DOE's plan is not acceptable, said a spokesman for Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, who grew up about five miles from the site in Springville.

"My boss has made clear to (Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham) on down that when it comes to nuclear waste, we consider that the federal government's responsibility," spokesman Michael Brady said.

It's also not acceptable to the Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes, which prefers the nuclear waste on the site be exhumed and placed in aboveground storage for eventual removal.

"The DOE has taken quite a turn and it seems as though they want no responsibility for the remaining cleanup," said coalition campaign director Seth Wochensky. "One could argue they're shirking their responsibility under the West Valley Demonstration Project."

Piciulo was more blunt. "This is not, in our view, going to complete all the department's responsibilities under the act," he said.

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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