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• 1962 – Nuclear Fuel Services Inc., a private corporation, reaches agreement with the federal Atomic Energy Commission and New York State to build a first-of-its-kind commercial nuclear fuel-reprocessing plant on a 3,300-acre site at West Valley in the Cattaraugus County Town of Ashford.

• 1966 – Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel begins at West Valley. It results in the creation of 600,000 gallons of liquid high-level radioactive waste.

• Late 1960s – An unknown volume of nitric acid that contained radioactive fission products leaks from the acid recovery system, housed in the southwest corner of the main plant. The acid flows down the walls of the building, migrates into the sand and gravel underlying the plant, and eventually mixes with groundwater. It is believed to be the source of the existing radioactive strontium plume.

• 1972 – The reprocessing plant is shut down for modifications. Operations never resume after more rigorous federal standards for the nuclear industry are enacted.

• 1975 – Burial of radiological waste generated from hospitals, universities, industry and commercial nuclear power plants in the New York State Licensed Disposal Area at West Valley ceases. It marks the last time any wastes are brought to West Valley from off-site.

• 1980 – The West Valley Demonstration Project Act is passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in Niagara Falls. The act requires the solidification of high-level radioactive waste at the site as well as the development of permanent disposal containers and transport to a federal repository along with the disposal of low-level and other radioactive wastes and the decontamination and decommissioning of equipment and material used in the project there.

• 1985 – 625 spent fuel assemblies are shipped back to their original owners. The Department of Energy took title to the remaining 125 spent fuel assemblies and shipped them to Idaho in 2003.

• 1986 – Burial of radiological waste from the reprocessing plant in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Licensed Disposal Area ceases.

• 1988-95 – The high-level radioactive waste is pretreated to remove sodium salts and sulfates prior to vitrification. In all, 1.7 million gallons of liquid waste and sludge wash water are treated, producing 19,877 drums of cement-stabilized low-level waste. The drums of cemented waste are shipped off-site for disposal.

• 1995 – A “pump and treat” recovery system is installed to remove strontium from the western portion of the migrating plume heading in a northeasterly direction toward Franks Creek. In 1999, a pilot-scale permeable treatment wall is installed on the eastern portion of the site.

• 1996-2002 – Nearly all of West Valley’s high-level liquid waste, 24 million curies, are transformed into glass in an innovative process known as vitrification in order to stabilize the materials. The molten glass is poured into 275 stainless steel cylinders where it solidifies into a hard, Pyrex-like glass. By comparison, the then-Soviet government estimated that 50 million curies escaped in the April 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

• 2004-05 – Operations to remotely process and package the high-level waste behind six-foot-thick concrete walls begin, and the cell where the vitrification process took place is dismantled.

• 2010 – A two-phase decommissioning and “long-term stewardship” Environmental Impact Statement for the West Valley site is published by the DOE. The first phase, estimated to take 10 years and $750 million to complete, is already in motion and includes relocating the 275 high-level waste canisters into a dry cask storage system with the demolition of structures on the site and continued shipping of low-level waste out West. That work would be followed by extensive soil-remediation work.

• December 2010 – An 860-foot-wall is installed along the site perimeter and proves effective in capturing the migrating strontium plume.

• 2012 – Contractors start demolishing “01-14 Building” formerly used during the vitrification process. Demolition expected to be finished in June 2013. More than 42,000 cubic feet of low-level waste shipped for disposal out West.

• 2013-15 – Preparatory facility modifications to be performed that will allow for removal of the 275 high-level waste canisters stored in the main process plant building.

• 2014 – Forecasted completion of off-site disposal for all “legacy waste.”

• 2015-18 – The 275 vitrified high-level waste canisters, robotically packed five at a time into concrete casts, will be placed on an above-ground pad in preparation for future removal to a permanent federal repository.

• 2018-20 – Demolition of the site’s main process plant building.

• 2020 – Final decisions to be reached about where the buried high-level waste tank farm – the emptied tanks that formerly held the liquid waste before vitrification – as well as the eight-acre NRC-licensed and 15-acre state-licensed disposal areas will be for the long-term future.

– T.J. Pignataro