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West Valley Nuclear Demonstration Project - Old Problems and New Challenges

Bad science and engineering, entwined with the loony economics of shallow planning and the ever-shifting priorities of government policy, led to the problem that is the West Valley Nuclear Demonstration Project, New York’s prominent nuclear waste site, and the delays of five decades now allows climate change to intensify its menace.

Were it not so dangerous, West Valley would resemble a comic opera of why superficial treatment of symptoms does not lower the threat of fatal disease.

In the 1960s, dissolving radioactive fuel rods in acid to extract valuable plutonium and other materials seemed so simple, but the little bit of thought given the matter soon became obvious and the activity halted when everyone realized they did not know what they were doing. It was yet another lesson that diluting the dangers from radioactive waste did not work any better than reducing any other pollution by dilution.

But that early activity created conditions that were not manageable through three decades of trying. It was not until 2002, after a chain of failed attempts, that much of the terrifying radioactive sludge in huge tanks was converted to gigantic glass modules, a lot of buried nuclear waste identified, and the extent of some seeping spills measured. But very little true remediation has been done and large threats lurk.

Most of what is present on the site is the result of deep trenches, in which was buried nuclear waste in fiber drums and cardboard boxes, leaking into the surrounding subsurface areas. Also, there lurks a large and serious subsurface strontium plume from spilled material, creeping toward surrounding bodies of water. The site and contents are monitored but with very little correction.

Both the US Department of Energy and New York Energy and Research Development Authority supervise the West Valley site. Competent scientists and engineers seek to reduce the danger of spreading radioactivity. Erosion control of surface waterways is active, and they continue to develop a scientific framework to guide decisions about the extent and character of the cleanup. But money is scarce and progress is slow, inviting outside forces like weather to provide an increased, unpredictable role.

West Valley is testimony to the failure of technology and engineering to assess and manage most toxics and radioactive waste. Mostly we mostly rely on the next generation to discover how to tame the monster we bequeath to them.

The terrible environmental consequences in nuclear waste are a threat to the water supply of millions humans living near Lakes Erie and Ontario, and the Niagara and St. Lawrence Rivers. An inch of rain an hour for many hours is more frequent these days. Such a storm flooded the village of Gowanda in 2009. Such a storm could accelerate the erosion of West Valley into Cattaraugus Creek and then Lake Erie. No current water supply filtration systems can cope with radioactive water.

Recently the West Valley Management Team assembled an impressive group of climatologist physicists to add to the information on possible impacts and outcomes of Climate Change on West Valley. Their qualifications and research findings are at

The engineers at West Valley are proud of the bank stabilization projects that they assure us will handle even exceptional storms through the West Valley plateau. But my mind conjures the scenes of destruction in New York and Vermont as a result of Hurricane Irene last year, and the huge masonry abutments that were detached from the water banks and ended stranded in the new much wider streambeds. Nature has a way of making its own rules and ignoring puny human standards.

All this threatens your world, and we concerned citizens will gather to explain the current dangers and how they could affect you and yours.

On February 26 at 7pm, in the auditorium in the Central Library in downtown Buffalo, in an event hosted by Lynda Schneekloth of the Sierra Club Niagara Group, Western New Yorkers can learn in great detail the dangers of West Valley. Experts who have studied and worked on the problems of West Valley will take part, including Barbara J. Warren, executive director of Citizens’ Environmental Coalition; Joanne E. Hameister, a research analyst who has worked on the issue since 1980; and Diane D’Arrigo, radioactive waste project director for Nuclear Information and Resource Service. These are folks with decades of dedication to doing something about the terrible threat of the nuclear waste in our midst, for which the rest of us are deeply indebted. So get out to this event and get active about removing a serious threat to your water, your life, and your descendents.

> Art Klein, Tonawanda

Art Klein chairs the West Valley Task Force for the Sierra Club Niagara Group.

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