By Art “Happy” Klein
The problem can be summed up as mad science and bad engineering join looney economics to meet climate change and heighten the frightful spector of the West Valley Nuclear Demonstration Project.
West Valley demonstrates that treating symptoms rarely cures the disease.
It all began in 1966, when private industry theorized it could dissolve nuclear power plant radioactive fuel rods in acid to extract valuable plutonium, a very lethal base ingredient of nuclear energy.
This idiocy was halted in 1972 when unforeseen powerful conditions threatened to melt down the entire facility, and officials realized their technology and engineering were not adequate to the task.
Then, after three decades of expensive emergency effort, in 2002 much of the radioactive liquid in underground storage tanks had been converted to insanely radioactive gigantic glass modules that still stand outside on the plateau, like bowling pins encased in thick jackets that will not last near as long as their contents are dangerous.
Intensely radioactive sludge remains in the underground tanks and burial areas where unknown quantities of plutonium and other radioactive waste are loosely buried in the sand and glacial till to contaminate the area for thousands of years.
West Valley is now supervised by both the federal Department of Energy and New York State Energy and Research Development Authority, and survives on low budgets and slow progress.
To keep the public safe from dangerous materials, we have no more than shoddy containment to slow the spread of lethal radioactivity. Especially dangerous is the fact that all the protective work built will not last as long as the site will remain dangerously hazardous to humans. And now climate change is the new wild card.
This year the West Valley team assembled a group of climatologists. Their work can be seen at: http://westvalleyphaseonestudies.org/images/documents/ClimateWorkshop_Handbook_R4.pdf.
One common conclusion they shared is that the increased intensity of storms wrought by climate change can loose the hounds of hades and threaten the water supply of 14 million humans on the lower Great Lakes. A downpour similar to what flooded Gowanda in 2009 could wash the West Valley plateau into Cattaraugus Creek and then into Lake Erie.
West Valley signals that despite robust confidence, our technology still fails to manage radioactive waste. We constantly improve storage methods, but have to hope that the next generation can tame the radioactive monster we have created.
Art “Happy” Klein, of the Town of Tonawanda, is a member of the Sierra Club Niagara Group.