AUDIE CORNISH, Host:
Daniel Robison reports.
DANIEL ROBISON: Chuck Kutcher(ph) has lived in the same house for 42 years on hilly farmland in upstate New York. He ran a greenhouse, two floral shops and raised three kids. In the late 1960s, he wasn't the only one new to the neighborhood. Just opening up down the street was the West Valley Nuclear Reprocessing Facility. As the first plant to recycle fuel from the nation's nuclear power plants, Kutcher says it brought the community hope, jobs and promises of safety.
M: Well, they'd come to my place and test vegetables. They would test dairy cows. They would test the milk. They would kill some deer and test those.
ROBISON: While tests on Kutcher's land came back negative, radiation eventually spread off-site due to accidents, lax storage and poor management. When tighter regulations forced the plant to shut down, word of the problems leaked to a scared public and John Chamberlain(ph) says waste leaked out of untended storage tanks.
M: The waste we had in that tank was a concentrated radioactive material with as many different isotopes in it as you could have found anywhere.
ROBISON: Now, workers are building a giant water filter underground that's as long as three football fields and as tall as a utility pole. The wall of volcanic rock will purify the contaminated ground water as it passes through.
M: I, myself, have an obsession with radioactive waste.
ROBISON: Shannon Seneca(ph) designed the wall. In fact, it's her thesis at the University at Buffalo.
M: Strontium really likes to travel with the ground water. Rather than just being one oval-type shape that's moving underground, it actually has, like, fingers pointing in different directions.
ROBISON: The plant has also cost taxpayers billions of dollars and will continue to do so. Ruth Weiner(ph) is with the Sandia National Lab. She says West Valley has always been ahead of its time, but not necessarily had the best timing.
M: Nobody really realized in 1966, when West Valley was first started, what all of the associated cleanup problems and, for that matter, cleanup regulations might be.
ROBISON: For NPR News, I'm Daniel Robison in Buffalo, New York.
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