West Valley's legacy: teachable moments for other nuclear cleanups

Jan 6, 2011

Unlike other nuclear failures like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, West Valley Reprocessing Plant in New York never became a household name. But even though it was open for only six years in the late 1960s, the plant has polluted soil, air, and water - and may have sickened employees.

Ever since then hundreds of workers have been decontaminating the property, and there's no end in sight for West Valley’s story.

Chuck Couture has seen it all (you can see and hear from him in the slideshow and audio story). He has lived in the same house for 42 years, on hilly farmland in rural upstate New York. He ran a greenhouse, two floral shops and raised three kids.  

But in the late 1960s he was new to the neighborhood, and he wasn't the only one: opening just down the street was the West Valley Reprocessing Plant.

As the first plant to recycle fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants, Couture says it brought the community hope, jobs and promises of safety.  And at first plant officials held up their side of the bargain.

“They’d come to my place and test vegetables. They would test dairy cows and test the milk. They would kill some deer and test those,” Couture says.

Tests on Couture’s land came back negative, but radiation eventually spread off-site through a series of accidents, lax storage issues, and poor management. When tighter regulations forced the plant to shut down, word of the problems leaked to a scared public. And then waste leaked, out of untended storage tanks.

“The waste we had in that tank was ... concentrated radioactive material, with as many different isotopes in it as you could find anywhere,” says John Chamberlain, technical advisor at the site.

An ongoing cleanup, with a new twist

Chamberlain has been working on the cleanup for 28 years at West Valley. He says there’s no way to get rid of all the radiation. Some will take millennia to fully decay. A battalion in hazmat suits continues to take the place apart, one pipe and barrel at a time.

Despite the intense cleanup, an underground pipe leaked unnoticed for two decades, sending a plume of radioactive strontium creeping toward creeks that feed into Lake Erie.

Now workers are building a giant water filter underground that’s as long as three football fields and as tall as a utility pole. The wall of volcanic rock is designed to purify the contaminated ground water as it passes through.

University at Buffalo PhD candidate Shannon Seneca designed the wall. In fact, it’s her thesis project.

“Strontium really likes to travel with the groundwater, so it’s highly highly mobile. Rather than being just one oval type shape that’s moving underground, it’s actually has ... fingers pointing in different directions,” Seneca says.

Seneca admits the wall isn’t perfect. Some strontium-soaked sections of the wall will stop working in less than 30 years. But the project has been credited as an innovative way to protect the public.

That's West Valley's ironic legacy. Research into other mishaps at there has resulted in other breakthroughs for long-term nuclear storage. But the plant has also cost taxpayers billions of dollars, and will continue to do so.

Ruth Weiner, with the Sandia National Lab, says West Valley has always been ahead of its time - but hasn't necessarily had the best timing.

“Nobody really realized in 1966 when West Valley was first started, what all of the associated cleanup problems - and for that matter - cleanup regulations would be,” Weiner said.

Weiner believes the nuclear industry has grown into a more responsible adult through West Valley’s mistakes. Still, officials don’t know how many decades it will take to tear down the plant. And some waste is likely to be stored there permanently.