The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission won’t fine Westinghouse for a series of atomic safety violations, including a potentially explosive uranium buildup, at the company’s Bluff Road fuel assembly plant last summer.
Instead of being assessed penalties, Westinghouse agreed to a series of changes that NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said satisfy the agency’s concerns about the nuclear fuel plant.
The company will conduct a safety survey among employees, improve and modify air pollution scrubbers in the plant and develop “additional methods” to help detect problems in the future, according to the NRC. Many improvements, including better training, increased inspections and equipment upgrades, already have been made, Hannah said.
“The increases in training, the increases in inspection frequency, the modifications they made to the equipment, changing some of their procedures internally – all those kinds of things added together give us a fairly high level of confidence there is much less likelihood of something like this happening again, “Hannah said.
Westinghouse discovered uranium had accumulated in an air scrubber in May 2016. Two months later, the company verified that the amount was three times higher than a federal safety standard.
The uranium buildup was significant enough that, under the right conditions, it could have caused a small explosion, or burst of radiation, inside the plant and endangered employees, the NRC has said. Allowing nuclear materials to build up in the right configurations, known as criticality, is among the most serious problems that can occur at a nuclear fuel plant, officials said last summer. The problem last summer caused part of the plant to be shut down temporarily.
Westinghouse officials brought in new management last year to help improve safety at the sprawling facility, one of only a handful of plants in the country that make fuel for nuclear reactors. A company spokeswoman said the company is continuing to improve.
“All of the apparent violations have been corrected,’’ Westinghouse spokeswoman Sarah Cassella said in an email Friday. “We are making additional improvements at the plant as part of an excellence plan to deliver long-term safe, reliable, excellent operations.”
But Friends of the Earth adviser Tom Clements wasn’t impressed with the NRC’s decision not to fine Westinghouse. Fines help drive home the importance of operating safely, said Clements, whose group is a national environmental organization.
“If anything merits a fine, it was this case,’’ Clements said. “Letting them off the hook does not instill public confidence in the way the NRC operates.’’
Last year’s troubles at the Bluff Road plant were similar to those the company encountered in 2004. Those troubles 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.
In the 2016 case, Hannah said the company and the NRC used what is known as an alternative dispute resolution process to work out improvements that would be made. That process was wrapped up recently with an order this week spelling out safety improvements.
The Westinghouse plant, built in 1969, employs about 1,000 people in southeast Richland County between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park. The plant 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.