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Leak at SC nuclear plant polluted soil, but agency says groundwater OK

Westinghouse’s nuclear fuel factory is one of the few of its kind in the country. It manufactures fuel for atomic power plants. It is located in a rural area between Columbia and Congaree National Park.
Westinghouse’s nuclear fuel factory is one of the few of its kind in the country. It manufactures fuel for atomic power plants. It is located in a rural area between Columbia and Congaree National Park.

Tests taken recently at a Bluff Road nuclear fuel factory found no signs that uranium contamination seeped from the soil and into the shallow groundwater at the sprawling plant, state regulators said.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said test results “do not indicate any impact to groundwater from this release. At this time, there is no evidence that the release has made contact with groundwater.’’

The department did not say whether it would require the plant’s operator, Westinghouse, to clean up polluted soil beneath the plant. But DHEC spokesman Tommy Crosby said the agency is continuing to discuss the leak with Westinghouse as the company tries to determine the scope of the incident.

Tests that measured radioactivity in groundwater were taken from a well 188 feet away from the contaminated soil, Crosby said Thursday.

“Data will guide decisions moving forward related to cleaning up the soil and as well as the need for additional groundwater monitoring at the site,’’ Crosby said in an email to The State.

DHEC’s statement follows the revelation last week that high levels of uranium were found in the soil beneath a hole in the Westinghouse plant’s floor. Uranium levels were about 1,000 times higher than what is normally found in dirt — a finding that raised concerns about whether uranium had washed from the soil into the water table.

Investigators are trying to determine if acid ate through the concrete floor, allowing uranium to seep into the ground, said Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Roger Hannah.

“Based on the original report, that sounds like what might have happened,’’ Hannah said, adding the cause has not been fully investigated. DHEC likely will be the lead investigating agency because the issue involves pollution in the ground, rather than a nuclear safety threat inside the plant, Hannah said.

Uranium is a toxic, radioactive material that can increase people’s chances of kidney damage if they are exposed to elevated levels in drinking water. Many people in eastern Richland County drink from wells, but DHEC says no wells are in the path of groundwater near where the uranium was found.

The Westinghouse plant has a history of violations of nuclear safety operating practices, although plant officials say they are working to instill a new safety culture. Groundwater contamination beneath the site dates to the early 1980s and still is not fully cleaned up, The State reported last week.

Because of questions from Lower Richland residents and local politicians, DHEC and Westinghouse officials have scheduled a meeting for Aug. 13 in Hopkins to explain what they know about the leak. The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. in the Hopkins Park Adult Action Center, 144 Hopkins Park Road, according to a news release Wednesday from Richland County Council.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said he hopes DHEC can provide full answers at the meeting. Jackson called for the meeting last week..

“The community has responded, and I’m pleased they are being given the opportunity to question DHEC and Westinghouse,’’ Jackson said.

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