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Western New York can't settle for a partial nuclear cleanup


The federal government cannot in good conscience walk away from the nuclear mess it fostered at West Valley without completing the cleanup. Release of a "final" cleanup plan this week offers an opportunity for Western New Yorkers to make that clear, and demand action to make it happen.

The Department of Energy's announced plan stops short of taking full responsibility for the cleanup. But the department shouldn't be blamed entirely for that. The federal agency and its state counterpart have failed to negotiate a plan and Congress has not clarified earlier cleanup orders or demanded comprehensive new ones. Now is the time to rectify those shortcomings.

The West Valley Nuclear Demonstration Project seemed like a great idea during the Eisenhower administration, when a push for "Atoms for Peace" generated nuclear projects nationwide. New York joined in, bought the site south of Springville and - with the help of spent nuclear fuels provided by the feds - encouraged the start-up of a nuclear fuels reprocessing company.

The idea didn't work, the company folded and the government ended up stuck with the mess. Albany and Washington combined to begin cleaning up the site, with the federal government hiring West Valley Nuclear Services Co. to help. A couple decades and $2 billion later, much has been accomplished but much remains. Most importantly, pieces of the who-does-what question remain unresolved, despite two spates of federal-state negotiations in the last decade.

The original 1980 Congressional mandate was for the Energy Department to clean up the high-level waste, by turning thousands of gallons of highly contaminated water into storable and stable glass logs, and then to decontaminate and decommission the facility before giving it back to the state.

But plans to transport the glass logs to a proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository in Nevada have stalled. That site won't be ready until at least 2010, if ever.

Worse, "decontaminate and decommission" has never been fully defined. The department's plan calls for retrieving the logs when a storage site is ready, but essentially leaving by 2008 after cleaning but not removing the underground tanks that once held the radioactive water. It would not clean up an underground plume of radioactively contaminated ground water, or remove a federally licensed radioactive waste dump on the site.

The state and citizen groups are right in opposing that plan, and this report should become a call to action. The federal agency cannot be blamed for seeking an "end point" for what has become an open-ended process requiring an increasingly difficult annual trek to Congress for funding.

There needs to be renewed federal-state negotiations to reach an acceptable resolution - or, failing that, action by this area's congressional delegation to amend the law in a way that more clearly defines the Energy Department's mandate, clarifies its duties and defines an acceptable end point.

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