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Nuclear fuel and safety: Atomic fuel plant's woes bring feds to Columbia

Westinghouse makes fuel for atomic power plants across the country. The company's SC plant is located southeast of Columbia and one of only a handful like it in the country.
Westinghouse makes fuel for atomic power plants across the country. The company's SC plant is located southeast of Columbia and one of only a handful like it in the country. File photo, The State

Since inspectors found potentially unsafe levels of uranium building up at a nuclear fuel plant in 2016, a handful of atomic-safety violations have been found at the Westinghouse facility southeast of Columbia.

But overall, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is encouraged that Westinghouse has made the 49-year-old fuel factory safer for its 1,000 employees and the nearby public, federal officials said after a meeting Tuesday night in Columbia.

"We're seeing good behavior, and their management is reinforcing that,'' said Thomas Vukovinsky, a senior NRC inspector. "It's going to take a little time, improving the safety culture, but they are on the right path.''

Westinghouse has been under the microscope since inspectors discovered elevated amounts of uranium in an air pollution control device in 2016. The buildup of uranium could have caused a small burst of radiation and endangered workers in the immediate vicinity.

Since then, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has inspected the plant more frequently. In 2017, the NRC conducted roughly four times the number of inspections that another nuclear fuel plant normally would be subject to, Vukovinsky said.

Westinghouse, which is seeking to renew its NRC operating license, has said its safety controls weren't adequate in 2016, adding it since has made a concerted effort to change that. The company now encourages workers to report any potential safety problems, rewarding employees for bringing concerns to the forefront, said factory vice president Mike Annacone, who was hired to straighten out problems at the Bluff Road facility.

The company also has spent money upgrading equipment and routinely double-checks to make sure systems are operated safely, he said. Annacone declined to say how much money the company has been spent on upgrades at the plant, but he said the amount is considerable.

"I have not had a (financial need) that was not supported by our company,'' Annacone said. "That's important. Our company has been going through bankruptcy and recovering from bankruptcy, and through that entire time period, we've been fully supported with what we need to move the plant forward.''

Despite the efforts, problems have surfaced since 2016.

Most recently, the NRC found an instance in which Westinghouse failed to document its efforts to prevent a small radiation burst from occurring at the plant. The NRC's Vukovinsky called the violation a paperwork error.

In 2017, Westinghouse also had two other minor violations. In one case, inspections determined that a safety system to prevent water from accumulating in duct work failed.

The Bluff Road fuel plant was constructed in 1969. It is in a rural southeastern Richland County, between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park. The fuel plant, one of only a handful in the United States, makes fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants across the country.

Westinghouse, headquartered in Pennsylvania, is the same company that has been blamed for the failure of the V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project in Fairfield County. The company was that project's chief contractor before filing bankruptcy last year. The SCE&G and Santee Cooper utilities spent $9 billion on the project before walking away last July.

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