Decommissioning the reprocessing plant in West Valley, New York

Frank von Hippel

On 20 May 2020, the US Department of Energy (DOE) submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) its plan for the next phase of the cleanup of the West Valley reprocessing plant, the only commercial reprocessing plant that ever operated in the United States.

The plant was built in western New York in the early 1960s by W.R. Grace, a chemical company conglomerate, at a cost of $33 million, equivalent to about $200 million in 2020 dollars. It was heavily subsidized by the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which paid to have it reprocess fuel from its N-reactor, a dual-purpose plutonium- and power-production reactor in the AEC's plutonium-production complex in Hanford Washington. It would have been far less costly to reprocess the fuel at Hanford. The AEC also paid the equivalent of $60 per gram in 2020 dollars for plutonium separated at West Valley from spent fuel delivered by U.S. nuclear utilities. The plant operated from 1966 to 1972, reprocessing 640 tons of spent fuel before it shut down for upgrades. About 1.5 tons of plutonium was recovered.

After Congress broke up the AEC and created the NRC as an independent agency in 1974, the magnitude of the safety and worker protection upgrades required at the West Valley plant became clear. W.R. Grace estimated the cost at $340 million (about $1.2 billion in 2020 dollars) and abandoned the plant, leaving its decommissioning and site cleanup costs to the federal government and New York State. The facility was renamed the West Valley Demonstration Project with its mission changed from demonstrating reprocessing to demonstrating the decommissioning of a reprocessing facility.

Four decades later, as of the end of 2017, the DOE had spent $1.4 billion for its 90-percent share of the cleanup cost. This paid for vitrification (glassification) of the high-level liquid reprocessing waste into 275 three-meter-tall containers that are stored on site, shipment of 125 unreprocessed spent fuel assemblies to the Idaho National Laboratory, and disposal of over 33,000 cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste, mostly onsite.

In the next phase of decommissioning, DOE proposes to dismantle the thick-walled process building down to ground level and ship an estimated 1,400 truckloads of the resulting debris to national low-level radioactive waste facilities . It also hopes to end on-going ground-water contamination due to leakage from the plant and its various radioactive waste storage facilities. In 2010, DOE estimated the cost of this phase at $1.2 billion.

Still undecided is the final phase of decommissioning. In 2010 DOE estimated an additional cost of $0.5 billion if the remaining radioactive contamination were managed indefinitely onsite and $5.4-8.2 billion if it were removed. DOE committed then that a decision on that choice would be made by 2020. With the current phase yet to begin, however, that decision is not in sight.

This is another example of the cleanup costs for reprocessing plants dwarfing their construction costs. Another example is Germany's WAK pilot reprocessing plant, which operated from 1971 to 1990 and reprocessed 207 tons of spent fuel. The plant cost the equivalent of $80 million to build. Around 2010, the cost for decommissioning was estimated at about $4 billion (both in 2020 dollars).

For modern, much more costly reprocessing plants built to higher safety standards, with vitrification part of the process, the ratio of decommissioning to construction costs will be less but still greater than one, in part due to the multi-decade duration of the decommissioning process.