Staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has proposed what a watchdog group is calling vague criteria for the decommissioning of the West Valley Demonstration Project.
The criteria, which must be approved by the commission, allows for radiation levels of 25 millirems per person per year, assuming that the site is monitored and controlled, and 500 millirems per person per year if those controls failed.
Both levels are relatively low. The natural background level of radiation for the average person is 300 millirems a year, according to Stephen Rudin, direction of the Division of Radiation Physics at the University at Buffalo's radiology department.
Still, for the criteria to be met, much of the high-level radioactive waste would have to be moved off-site.
Since estimates for removal of the waste from the site have ranged up to $8 billion, and since there is no repository to move it to, it seems likely that the material will stay on the West Valley site for the foreseeable future.
"We do know, based on our experience, that there are problems trying to get that type of material moved in-state, never mind out-of-state," said Jack Parrott, project manager for the NRC.
In accordance with the legislation establishing the demonstration project in 1980, the commission must provide the federal Department of Energy with the decommissioning criteria.
The criteria will be used in an environmental-impact statement that the Department of Energy and the New York State Energy Research and Development Administration are preparing for the decommissioning and closure of the site, but the NRC staff report also said that the two agencies might choose to propose alternative criteria.
That is too indefinite for the West Valley Coalition, a citizen watchdog group. "They're going to allow the DOE to pick a preferred alternative, and then (the commission) will choose that one," said coalition member Carol Mongerson. "The purpose of a regulating agency is to regulate, not to OK."
The commission will hold a public briefing on the criteria recommendations. Although the date has not yet been finalized, Parrott said he thought that the briefing would take place at the NRC's offices in Rockville, Md., on Jan. 12.
The demonstration project is in the final stages of removing high-level radioactive waste from tanks at the former nuclear fuel reprocessing plant and turning them into more manageable solids.
Project spokesman John Chamberlain said about 230 canisters containing the glasslike solids have been filled, representing 87 percent of the 600,000 gallons of high-level waste originally found on the 200-acre site.