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A LOOK BACK: Buttermilk Creek Bounces Back

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Nuclear Fuels Services promised to put Western New York into leadership in the atomic age when it opened as the first commercial nuclear reprocessing plant in the world.  The overwhelming nature of the materials and waste it produced closed the plant in late 1971.  It became the West Valley Demonstration Project in 1980.

By Derek M. Otto

With talk about the Cattaraugus Creek in the media the last few weeks, it’s a good time to look back when many issues surrounded the water table in our area.

In 1961, the New York State Office of Atomic Development chose a large portion of the nearby town of Ashford as its site for the West Valley nuclear fuel reprocessing plant and atomic waste storage facility.  The site was originally built by WR Grace and Company and changed hands to the Getty Oil Company when it opened its doors for operation in 1966.

The advent of nuclear power plants in the 1950s, the early discoveries in nuclear medicine and other radioactive wastes were starting to grow by the early 1960s.  The facility took spent nuclear reactor rods, broke them down, put them through an acid bath and produced uranium and plutonium products for the energy market. This was the first and only commercial nuclear reprocessing plant in the United Sates. The plant closed in December 1971, due to not being able to handle the waste effectively.

I came across an article from Professor Hopke of Fredonia State College titled, “Buttermilk Creek Bounces Back.” (Buttermilk Creek is a large tributary that runs into the Cattaraugus Creek.) I found it curious. It was from January 1974 and reported on the levels of fission products in the environment around the West Valley facility.   It told of studies done in 1966 and 1969 that showed that fission products were being released into the area around the facility.   

In his report, Dr. Hopke noted that a new waste water treatment system was installed in 1969.  Studies done shortly after that revealed that the new system was not working.  In 1971, Hopke was assigned to assess tritium, a hydrogen isotope produced in fission, levels in Buttermilk Creek. He found over 500,000 picocuries per liter of tritium in August 1971 and less that 6,000 picoliters per liter of tritium in August 1973.  To understand that rate of pollution, I looked up the amount of tritium in the natural environment and found that tritium is naturally-occuring at 3 picocuries per liter. The closure of the plant in 1971 stopped the seepage into the enviroment. Tritium is toxic if ingested and the professor noted that some fish may have been affected, but that was another study. Dr. Hopke didn’t say what parts of the creek he took samples from.

As he reported, and like many at the time believed, Nuclear Fuels Services would reopen their new facility within a few years and the new facility would be able to handle the amounts of waste being produced at the plant.   As we know now,  Getty Oil never reopened the plant or invested in measures to secure the waste at the plant.  That took an act of Congress.

In 1980, after many years of advocacy, the West Valley Demostration Project came into being.  $2.9 billion of public money  and 37 years later, we can say that Buttermilk Creek has bounced back.

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