COLUMBIA, SC Federal regulators discovered “substantial potential’’ for a nuclear accident that could have injured workers at the Westinghouse atomic fuel factory near Columbia, according to preliminary results of an investigation into why uranium built up beyond safe standards at the 47-year old plant.
The findings, presented during a public meeting Tuesday night, outlined a litany of problems federal officials say they are learning about at the Bluff Road fuel factory, a 550,000-square foot building nestled in the woods between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park.
Chief among the concerns is the company’s inability to keep uranium from accumulating in equipment on the site. When uranium builds up, it can create a nuclear reaction that could cause a burst of radiation. Anyone in the area could be exposed.
“Potential safety consequences to workers were high,’’ according to a power point presentation highlighting what federal investigators have found so far.
Even though no accident occurred and the general population of Richland County was in no danger, the potential for problems existed, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In this case, uranium had built up in an air pollution control device known as a scrubber.
“This is a serious event,’’ NRC regional administrator Catherine Haney said after the meeting in Columbia. “We rely on certain measures to be put in place that would prevent (an accident) from occurring. Those measures were not available.’’
Some of the problems at the Westinghouse plant date back 10 years in air pollution control scrubbers, said the NRC’s Mark Lesser. The most recent discovery of uranium accumulation was found this past summer in a rooftop scrubber.
The scrubber contained amounts of uranium three times higher than the federal safety standard. Other equipment has also been discovered with uranium accumulation during the summer.
Westinghouse officials didn’t dispute the findings, and in fact, say they are working diligently to resolve problems at the plant, one of three in the U.S. that makes uranium fuel for use in commercial power plants.
Michele DeWitt, Westinghouse’s interim senior vice president for nuclear fuel and components manufacturing, conceded that her company needs to do better. The company has shut down part of its production lines and temporarily laid off about one-tenth of its workforce while it works to improve.
“We have had significant performance lapses at the Columbia site,’’ DeWitt told the crowd of about 60 at Tuesday night’s meeting.” Decision making was flawed, and we did not meet our own high standards and nuclear safety expectations.’’
According to preliminary results of the NRC’s investigation:
▪ After finding some nuclear material had built up in an air scrubber, the company restarted the equipment without making sure all of the atomic material was cleaned out
▪ The company did not use available information to make sure it was safe to restart the scrubber
▪ The company’s failures allowed for the “substantial potential’’ for an unplanned critical event, or nuclear accident.
▪ Westinghouse displayed a “lack of rigor’’ in putting together periodic inspections that might have found problems at the plant
▪ The company failed to put together adequate management measures to ensure employees got proper training
Westinghouse is pledging to make substantial improvements to ensure uranium doesn’t build up in the future. The improvements include upgraded equipment, more frequent inspections and additional personnel.
It also has brought in personnel with expertise in resolving such problems. Mike Annacone, who has helped resolve safety problems at nuclear plants across the region, will become the Columbia site vice president after he concludes overseeing in-house improvement efforts. He started at Westinghouse in early August.
Westinghouse has declined to say if anyone was fired, but acknowledges personnel changes at the Columbia fuel factory.
David Lochbaum, who tracks commercial nuclear safety issues for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said it’s not always easy for companies to notice problems when they develop over time, such as with an accumulation of uranium.
““Those kinds of slowly deteriorating conditions are some of the hardest to recognize,’’ Lochbaum said.
In this case, Westinghouse found an accumulation of gunk had built up in the scrubber in May. It then verified in July that the material contained uranium at three times the federal safety limit.
State Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, said he’s glad Westinghouse is working on the problem, but he and others said issues at the plant are disturbing. Neal also said the Westinghouse plant has operated with little interaction with the surrounding community.
This year’s troubles are similar to problems the company encountered in 2004 that eventually resulted in a $24,000 federal fine against Westinghouse. That fine also resulted from a buildup of uranium in an incinerator. At the time, company officials pledged to fix the incinerator.
The plant, built in 1969, uses a type of gas it brings in to make a uranium powder, which is then encased in small pellets. Those pellets are later stuffed into fuel rods, which are bundled up to create nuclear fuel assemblies for atomic power plants around the world.