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Senator wants answers from DHEC about uranium that leaked from SC nuclear plant

Westinghouse Electric’s nuclear fuel plant on Bluff Road southeast of Columbia
Westinghouse Electric’s nuclear fuel plant on Bluff Road southeast of Columbia

A state senator says he wants answers on why uranium leaked through a hole in the floor of a Richland County nuclear plant with a history of troubles and groundwater contamination.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, is asking the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to explain what it knows about uranium contamination discovered recently at the Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory on Bluff Road.

At Jackson’s request, DHEC has agreed to hold a public meeting to discuss the leak and other problems. Jackson sent a letter to DHEC on Thursday outlining his concerns.

“This is very disturbing,’’ Jackson said of the Westinghouse leak. “This is one of the fears that those of us who grew up in that area, and lived in that area, have always talked about. ‘’

Jackson, who has relatives who live near the plant, said a key concern is how uranium-tainted groundwater could affect wells people rely on for drinking water. DHEC has not said if soil polluted by uranium has contaminated the shallow water table.

But DHEC says there are no public supply wells within two miles of the plant and no one directly in the path of groundwater on the site. The agency also said it does not think the contamination has spread off of the Westinghouse property.

Jackson said he remains skeptical.

“What we don’t know is what kind of impact that’s going to have 20 years from now on the groundwater, this drip, drip, drip,’’ Jackson told The State, referring to the leak. “I don’t know of too many people too receptive to living in the area when they know the groundwater is contaminated.’’

The Westinghouse plant, built nearly 50 years ago, is in a rural, heavily forested part of Richland County between Congaree National Park and Interstate 77. Hunt clubs and small communities dot the landscape nearby. The sprawling plant, which sits behind a fence and guarded gates, makes uranium-based fuel for the nation’s atomic power reactors. It is one of the Columbia area’s major employers, with about 1,000 workers.

Uranium, a toxic radioactive substance that can cause kidney damage, apparently trickled through a 3-inch hole in the floor of the plant and contaminated the soil, according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission records.

A 6-foot-deep hole was found below the hole in the floor, and high levels of uranium were discovered in the earth, according to the NRC, which is investigating. The hole was discovered while work crews made repairs to a liner in part of the plant where acid is used. The leak was discovered about two weeks ago, but news of the event did not surface until this week.

The NRC said uranium levels reached 4,000 parts per million, an amount that is more than 1,000 times higher than the typical amount of uranium in soil.

“That’s a lot, oh yeah,’’ said Frank Chapelle, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Columbia.

Chapelle said one of the key questions is how radioactive the uranium that leaked would be. Chapelle said it should not be difficult to measure the level of radioactivity in the uranium-contaminated soil.

Before Jackson made his call for a public meeting, DHEC spokeswoman Cristi Moore said the agency was awaiting groundwater test results. The agency wants to know if the atomic pollutant spread from the soil into groundwater beneath the site.

Both DHEC and the NRC said Tuesday they do not believe the pollution has moved off the property. In addition to uranium, fluoride also was discovered in the soil beneath the cracked factory floor. Westinghouse said it has shut down equipment near the leak site while it investigates.

“The location remains removed from service while the event is being fully investigated,’’ spokeswoman Sarah Cassella said in an email. “Our maintenance department has placed a metal plate over the small hole. Monitoring of closes t down-gradient well has been and will continue to be performed to ensure water quality. Based on the investigation results, modifications to repair the equipment and prevent recurrence of another event will be completed prior to the station’s return to service.’’

The uranium leak is the latest in a series of problems that have plagued the facility for decades. In the early 1980s, regulators discovered the groundwater was contaminated with fluoride and ammonia. Solvents later were found in groundwater. Solvents are particularly toxic to people exposed to them. The agency also found nitrate in the groundwater that dates to the 1980s. Nitrate is toxic to babies who drink formula with contaminated water.

Efforts to clean up the contamination have produced mixed results, with some pollution continuing to show up in the water.

“There are several known previous releases from different areas at the site that have resulted in groundwater treatment, monitoring and ongoing additional investigations,’’ DHEC’s Tommy Crosby said earlier this week. “Westinghouse has a groundwater monitoring network at the site and work continues to better define the extent of historical contamination.’’

In addition to those problems, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has fined and cited Westinghouse more than a dozen times dating to at least 1993. Those problems range from buildups of uranium in air-pollution control devices and incinerators to worker accidents.