West Valley Environmental Services
West Valley Nuclear Services (WVNS)
West Valley Demonstration Project
West Valley Reprocessing Plant
Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS)
New York Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) (title owner)
All the above names refer to a 3345 acre parcel of land in the Town of Ashford, New York, County of Cattaraugus, where a plant was established in the early 1960s for the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel. The plant was built on 200 acres of land about in the center of the parcel. The plant area and another 100 acres of storage area was surrounded by an eight foot high security fence.
Time of Operation: The West Valley Reprocessing Plant was operated from 1966 to 1972. Although the reprocessing was shut down in March 1972 for improvements to increase capacity, spent light-water waste fuel assemblies were shipped to West Valley between 1973 and 1975 in anticipation of reprocessing. Management of the facility was transferred to New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) in 1977. Return of unreprocessed spent nuclear fuel assemblies occurred in the early 1980s. Decontamination activities took place in the 1980s and early 1990s, and vitrification began in 1996 and continued until 2001 producing 275 10-foot tall stainless steel canisters of hardened radioactive glass. In 1999 Vitrification of Expanded Materials Processing began processing unserviceable equipment at the site.
Location: West Valley is located in Western New York State in the northernmost part of Cattaraugus County adjacent to Cattaraugus Creek, which flows north along the Seneca Nation tribal land and empties into Lake Erie. It is 35 miles South of Buffalo, New York [see map]
The address is 10282 Rock Springs Road, West Valley, New York. Rock Springs Road runs off of Route 219 to the east.
Materials Processed: During reprocessing operations (1966-1972) 660,000 gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste was generated that was stored in an underground waste tank. Also stored at the site are 170 tons of used nuclear fuel assemblies, 140,000 cubic feet of solid waste, and 2.4 million cubic feet of buried low-level radioactively contaminated waste. There was a separate designated 15-acre area for the disposal of radioactive waste from commercial generators and another 7-acre landfill for radioactive waste generated from reprocessing.
Workers: The plant employed a permanent work force of less than 200 persons during operations; however, contract employees had to be brought in once the regular employees reached their quarterly dose limits. These were estimated in an insurance survey to be about 1,000 temporary laborers each year.
Department of Energy Involvement: On October 1, 1980, Congress passed the West Valley Demonstration Project Act (WVDPA) which directed the Secretary of Energy to prepare radioactive waste for disposal at West Valley (PL 96-368). Since at least that date, West Valley workers meet the required relationship with Department of Energy under the EEOICPA. Prior thereto and back to June 3, 1965, substantial quantities of radioactive liquid waste was received at West Valley from Department of Energy reactors (630 tons from 1966 to 1972). Thus, it would appear beyond contravention that from as early as 1965, West Valley was a facility that performed operations for the Department of Energy as encompassed by the EEOICPA. (42 U.S.C. § 7384l (12)).
Exposures: Instead of making maximum efforts to maintain low levels of exposure consistent with “commonly accepted” radiation protection practice, the radiation control program at West Valley was designed to remove at-risk employees from the site when they approached the maximum allowable exposure limit for each quarter. Adopting this approach in an “extreme radiological environment” (see below) put the workers at extreme risk. AEC criticized NFS for this approach in a March 1972 letter. (Site Profile page 23).
The site profile states:
Users of this site profile should bear in mind the West Valley reprocessing plant was an extreme radiological environment throughout the operations era. Fuel segmentation operations resulted in substantial quantities of high specific activity airborne particulate matter, resulting in significant operational difficulties associated with the plant ventilation systems and airflow issues. This, coupled with other unforeseen circumstances involving radioactivity in systems where it was not anticipated, or at unacceptable levels, meant radiological conditions encumbered operation of the facility from the outset. Routine, contact maintenance activities had to be performed in high dose rate environments. Dose rates in normally occupied areas were also high, and radiological contamination was substantial plant-wide from maintenance activities and spills (see Attachment A of the Site Profile for details). High backgrounds compromised the effectiveness of contamination control measurements . Site Profile page 22.
Amendment A of the site profile details that an inspection by the plant housekeeping committee on January 27, 1967, found the plant to be in a “deplorable condition” with regard to radiological exposures just seven months after it began to receive materials. (paragraph 31.1.1)
The Radiation Protection Program at West Valley defined contamination areas using a “zone” system using an escalating system of four zones requiring more stringent controls as the zone level increased.
Given the “deplorable condition” of the plant and “extreme radiological environment throughout the operations area” (Site Profile page 22), dose reconstruction would seem to be an Alice in Wonderland exercise. It is anticipated that Special Exposure Cohort status will be applied for and eventually approved to deal with this vexing problem at West Valley.
Materials Processed: Processing began on April 22, 1966. It was divided into twenty-eight (28) campaigns, the first three of which involved Hanford N Reactor. The plant used the plutonium-uranium extraction (PUREX) process; one thorium campaign was processed between November 1968 and January 1969. Six hundred thirty (630) tons of fuel from nine different reactors was processed. In March 1972 the reprocessing plan was shut down. This was thought at the time to be temporary. From 1973 to 1975, seven hundred fifty-six (756) spent light water reactor fuel assemblies were shipped to West Valley and placed in the Storage Pool and of the 3345 acre parcel, 200 acres in about the center compromised the reprocessing facility of a 300-acre portion surrounded by an 8-foot security fence. The secure area contained the reprocessing facility and the storage area.
Contamination and Soil: Low level radiation in the soil is leaking into Cattaraugus Creek which empties into Lake Erie some distance north. Remediation efforts are under way to filter groundwater on site at significant expense.
The cancers already found to be caused by radiation from the West Valley site are likely the tip of the iceberg which will be further revealed over the next decades.