An internal review of a Columbia nuclear fuel factory has identified multiple problems with how the site has been managed for atomic safety through the years.
The report, compiled by plant operator Westinghouse, says the company wasn’t always tough-minded enough about safety and it didn’t ensure employees knew enough about nuclear safety while operating some of the factory’s equipment.
Westinghouse’s report cited “long standing deficiencies’’ that led to a buildup of uranium in excess of federal nuclear safety standards in part of the Bluff Road plant.
The 47-year-old plant employs about 1,000 people, but at least 170 have been laid off temporarily while Westinghouse and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission separately investigate why uranium built up in apparent violation of federal standards.
Buildups of atomic material are of concern because they can lead to nuclear accidents, although that did not occur in this case. Nuclear safety advocates say Westinghouse needs to redouble its efforts to make sure other, more serious problems don’t arise.
“There were no actual safety-related consequences as a result of the accumulation, but the potential for such consequences may have existed,’’ the NRC said in a recent news release.
The NRC has scheduled a public meeting Tuesday night in Columbia to discuss problems identified this past summer at Westinghouse.
Westinghouse discovered uranium had accumulated in an air scrubber in May and verified in July that the amount was three times higher than the federal standard. Uranium accumulation at lower levels has also been found in an air scrubber that was last used 14 years ago, records show.
Investigators with the NRC have been examining the plant since the uranium buildup was identified. They expect to release a report soon. Westinghouse also has been conducting its own probe and pledged to improve operations.
The Westinghouse study, required by the NRC, likely contains similar information to what the nuclear agency’s report will contain, said NRC spokesman Roger Hannah. Depending on the outcome of the federal investigation, Westinghouse could be fined or face other sanctions.
“We’ll look at all the things we found and determine if there are any potential violations of NRC regulations,’’ Hannah said.
In a Sept. 12 letter to the nuclear agency, Westinghouse insisted the uranium that accumulated at the plant never threatened the environment or worker safety.
But company spokeswoman Courtney Boone said Westinghouse still takes problems identified at the plant “very, very seriously.’’ The company has said it was making a series of “executive leadership transitions’’ that included naming a new interim senior vice president to oversee the Columbia plant.
The company has declined to directly say if anyone was fired, but the NRC said Westinghouse will update maintenance and management procedures, improve the scrubber system, retrain personnel and retain a nuclear safety expert.
In their internal review, Westinghouse’s own inspectors cited concerns. According to the company’s report, Westinghouse:
▪ Did not ensure plant employees knew enough about maintaining safety in the air scrubber. Maintaining safety can prevent nuclear accidents.
▪ “Identified recurring issues’’ with the storage of nuclear material and accumulation of the nuclear material.
▪ Did not have strong enough procedures to keep uranium from building up in the scrubber.
▪ Did not make sure controls were adequate to prevent the buildup in the plant’s air scrubber. “Long-standing deficiencies in verifying the effectiveness of controls ..... resulted in accumulations exceeding’’ safety standards.
▪ Had a “less-than-adequate questioning attitude’’ about management procedures that were supposed to prevent a nuclear accident.
Ed Lyman, who tracks nuclear issues for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said the company’s findings are disturbing. Lyman said the findings raise concerns about the company’s general commitment to following safety rules.
“You can’t have the leeway to cut any corners,’’ he said.
The Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant is among Columbia’s major employers and one of only three atomic fuel factories in the country. It makes uranium fuel rods that are bundled and shipped to commercial atomic power plants. The rods are then used to generate electricity.
Westinghouse’s 550,000-square-foot plant is southeast of Columbia between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park.