To: Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice mailing list
June 20, 2018
RE:Protests against nuclear waste in western New York State

Residents living near the West Valley Nuclear Waste Facility
in New York State say “When will the cleanup end?”

by Pete Brown, Detroit Workers’ Voice

Back in the 1950s, the government loved to promote the supposedly peaceful uses of atomic energy. In the future, they claimed, the Jetsons would fly around in atomic-powered family cars; housewives would have a wonderful, easy life with atomic-powered dishwashers and vacuum cleaners; and vacations to the moon and Mars would be quick and easy on atomic-powered spaceships. Of course this future is still a long way off for the ordinary working-class family. And one snag in particular has been nagging at the atomic future for decades: the problem of atomic waste. Private capitalists, with the aid and support of the federal government, have been able to build some nuclear-powered electric generating plants. The government and capitalists lied about their cost, and they lied about their safety. Generating electricity from solar energy or wind or water power would be much safer and cheaper. Well, at least they have been able to generate some electric power. Well and good. But the problem remains, what to do with the nuclear waste left over? What do you do with the uranium, plutonium and other trans-uranium elements left over after fuel has been used in electricity plants? Back in the 50s our grandparents were told, “No problem; we’ll process it.” Yes, processing was the procedure that would make atomic fuel harmless. Children could then romp on playgrounds covered with left-over atomic fuel, safely and happily. Well and good. One little problem remained, however: How do you process it? No problem, people were told, the government has scientists working on that problem. Men in white coats are mixing chemicals, pouring them into beakers, and grinding up atomic fuel into dust. Pretty soon, all that old fuel will be completely harmless.

Let’s fast forward now to 2018 and see what progress has been made. Leftover nuclear fuel was transported to a processing plant in West Valley, New York (30 miles south of Buffalo), and a private company was created and contracted to process the fuel and make it harmless. This company was working away in the 1960s. One thing they tried was grinding up the leftover nuclear material and mixing it with tons of other material – inert dirt – in order to make it harmless. But the more they mixed, the more they just spread around the radioactive material. It was still radioactive. In fact they were just making the problem worse. As more and more knowledge of the dangers of radioactivity piled up, the private company finally gave up the job, closed down their operation and beat it. Capitalists are not interested in government contracts unless they’re guaranteed profits, and profits in this case depended on coming up with workable solutions to the problem of atomic waste.

This processing facility was then turned over to the state of New York, which worked with the federal government to come up with solutions. The new solution was solidification. Liquified nuclear fuel was mixed with liquid glass and then solidified into bars of radioactive glass. These bars could then be handled without danger of spreading dirt around or sloshing around the radioactive liquid. Very good. But now, what do you do with these bars of radioactive glass? Well, the government has a handy solution: store them away in some deep underground chamber where there’s no danger of earthquakes releasing radioactive material into the living environment. Where do you find such a place? That’s easy, the government said: send it to Yucca Mountain, Nevada. There are a couple problems with that, however: people in Nevada don’t want that stuff anywhere near their state, and no one in between New York and Nevada wants radioactive material transported across their state. There’s always the danger that trucks or railroad cars might have an accident, turn over and spill radioactivity all over the environment. The federal government has tried to assure people that transporting radioactive material is perfectly safe, but so far it hasn’t worked. Nor has the government succeeded in convincing residents of Nevada they can safely live next to a nuclear storage site. Memories of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima are still fresh in people’s minds. And Yucca Mountain will not just be unsafe for a few years; it will take hundreds of thousands of years for the nuclear material to slowly become inert.

So the nuclear material is still stuck in West Valley, waiting to be processed and then transported somehow, to some safe place, where people will welcome it. In other words, there’s not much chance of any solution to the problem of nuclear waste any time soon. So what do the residents of nearby towns think about all this? Obviously they’re very unhappy, frustrated and angry about the continued use of their environment as a dumping ground for the government’s nuclear boondoggle. This spring the government sponsored a number of public hearings in West Valley to tell residents what they are doing about the nuclear material. People from nearby towns, and some from faraway places, have come to express their anger and frustration at the decades-long cleanup. Government officials gently told people at these hearings that they might have to store nuclear materials there in West Valley permanently, but residents would not have it. Just about everyone from the general public who spoke demanded total cleanup and removal of the nuclear waste. A representative of the Seneca Nation, whose reservation partly abuts the West Valley processing site, said: “Total cleanup is the only answer; anything less than that is not good enough, and that’s what we’re demanding.” A spokesperson for the Western New York Environmental Alliance demanded: “We want them to exhume all the waste on the site in order to make sure that our water and our drinking water is absolutely clean.” It turns out that, over the years, the “processing site” has been used largely as a dumpsite, with tons of radioactive material buried on the grounds. Today, with climate change and storms and geologic shifting, there’s danger that radioactive material will begin leaking into nearby Cattaraugus Creek and from there into Lake Erie. A spokesperson for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service said, “The Buffalo, the Erie County water supply, is at risk from this site. The radioactivity is there now. It’s dangerous now. It’s going to stay dangerous for literally millions of years.” (Quotes from “Advocates urge for nuclear waste removal at West Valley,” news article by Jeff Rusack on WKBW news site posted at 11:28 PM on March 20, 2018) Spokespeople from other environmental groups like Sierra Club and Citizens Campaign for the Environment also voiced their concerns and similarly demanded that the government totally clean up the West Valley site. Local people who spoke up also demanded a total cleanup, but some of them also expressed frustration and tiredness, since they have been voicing similar concerns at similar meetings for decades. The government says they are interested in hearing public comments, but decades go by while nuclear waste continues to pile up and pose a growing danger.

The fact that so many people are aware of the danger from nuclear waste – that they take the time to educate themselves and the general public — is a positive development. After decades, the government still has no answers to give when it comes to dealing with nuclear waste. For now the most important lessons people can gain from this experience are: the government continually lies and makes false promises about its nuclear energy programs. Local and national environmental groups should do what they can to hamper and slow down the government’s nuclear program. []

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Posted on July 15, 2018
Some typos have been corrected.