It will cost more than $1 billion to remove all the nuclear wastes from the site of a shut-down atomic-fuel reprocessing plant near Buffalo, N.Y., the Energy Department has concluded.
Closed in 1972, after seven years of operation, the reprocessing plant is owned by Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., a subsidiary of Getty Oil Corp. It sits on land leased from the state at West Valley, 30 miles southeast of Buffalo.In addition to the reprocessing plant, there are three other nuclear repositories on the site, one of them containing high-level radioactive waste.
Congress ordered the Department of Energy a year ago to estimate the costs of cleaning up the West Valley site. The department has now estimated it will cost $130 million to solidify liquid wastes in two tanks and remove them, $340 million to exhume one of two burial sites and $570 million to exhume the second burial ground.
DOE's report is to go to Congress this week.
The crucial questions facing Congress are how much of a cleanup it wants to authorize and who should bear the costs. As things now stand, the federal government bears no fiscal responsibility for the West Valley site, which is the only commercial reprocessing plant for nuclear fuel to have operated in the United States.
The idle reprocessing plant, two steel tanks containing 597,000 gallons of high-level radioactive waste and the two burial grounds are owned by Nuclear Fuel Services. Its lease on the land from the state runs out in 1980, at which time responsibility for the wastes falls to the state.
The state, in turn, has been trying to get the federal government to take over the site on the ground that it was the federal government that shipped fuel there to have the usable plutonium and uranium removed and the wastes stored.
NFS argues that it would not have closed the reprocessing plant had the federal government not imposed a series of new regulations that added what NFS claims to be almost $600 million to the cost of a planned expansion among other things, federal regulations stipulated that the expanded plant would have to be built to withstand a severe earthquake.
About two-thirds of the fuel reprocessed at West Valley came from the federal government, which contracted with NFS to extract the plutonium and uranium from the spent fuel for government use. The government's position is that it paid for the extraction and has no responsibility for the wastes left over from the extraction process. NFS thinks differently.
"If legal arguments alone will not serve to transfer West Valley to the federal government, equitable and compassionate considerations should," NFS Vice President H. W. Brook said. "The ebb and flow of federal policy created the West Valley project and, in turn, destroyed it. It is now time for the federal government to face the implications of its actions."
To hear New York's congressional delegation tell it, the federal government bears almost full responsibility for West Valley because it was the federal goverment's promotion of development of nuclear power in the United States that led the state and NFS into the West Valley project in the first place.
"The federal government encouraged, regulated and supplied the West Valley project," said Democrat Henry J. Nowak, who represents a Buffalo district. "Let the federal government bear the brunt of the cleanup costs."
Republican Jack F. Kemp, the onetime Buffalo Bills quarterback whose district embraces Buffalo's suburbs, wants the federal government to clean up all of West Valley and pay 100 percent of the cost, no matter what it amounts to. Democrat Stanley Lundine, whose district includes West Valley, takes a view that is not as hard as Kemp's.
Lundine wants the hot-liquid wastes solidified and removed from the site, a project that will cost $130 million and take 8 to 10 years to complete. He suggests that the federal government pay 90 percent of that cleanup, in part because most of the spent fuel that produced these particular wastes came from the U.S. government.
Beyond that, Lundine isn't sure. He'd like to see the contents of the two burial grounds exhumed, but is appalled by the $910-million cost and the risks to the workers who would perform the exhumation. Lundine also understands that the wastes would have to be transported elsewhere, which involves new risks and new responsibilities for the place that takes them.
Whatever decisions are made about West Valley will be made by the full Congress, not just the New York State delegation. The Energy Department is supposed to make its own recommendations on a cleanup plan in May, and while nobody inside the department is talking about that plan, chances are it will involve removing the liquid wastes and leaving behind all the contaminated clothes, radioactive machinery and medicines buried in steel drums below ground at West Valley.
Reasons for such an approach go far beyond cost. The only burial ground that's left east of the Mississippi for low-level radioactive waste is at Barnwell, S.C., which is a long way from many enterprises generating low-level waste and which is fast filling up.