The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says its safety inspectors did not know for six years that uranium had leaked from an atomic fuel factory on Bluff Road, a sprawling industrial plant under scrutiny for past operating practices.
The leaking uranium, discovered by plant owner Westinghouse in 2011, was unknown to NRC inspectors until the fall of 2017, when they ran across information about the accident while preparing a special environmental study on the plant, the agency told The State newspaper.
Westinghouse, under fire over leaks and spills at the site, said it was not required to tell the NRC about the uranium leak discovered in 2011.
But NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said the agency wants to know more. It now is trying to determine whether Westinghouse should have told the agency’s safety inspectors.
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“We continue to seek more information about the 2011 event and other issues,’’ Ledford said in an email Wednesday to The State.
The NRC’s statement that safety inspectors did not know about the leak for six years follows assertions by state regulators that they also did not know about it until recently. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control says it only found out about the reported 2011 uranium spill in January.
Westinghouse’s Bluff Road plant plays an important role in the nation’s production of atomic energy. The expansive plant is one of only three of its kind that makes fuel for the nation’s approximately 100 nuclear power plants. The 49-year-old facility, located between Columbia and Congaree National Park, employs about 1,000 people. It is nestled on a 1,200-acre site near a smattering of homes and hunt clubs.
The company, however, has a history of run-ins with the NRC over safety issues, including a 2016 buildup of uranium that threatened to cause a small nuclear explosion. Groundwater beneath the plant has been polluted with a variety of contaminants since the early 1980s, records show. Overall, contamination from the plant has not tainted groundwater or creeks in the area, according to DHEC.
Uranium that reportedly leaked through a buried pipe in 2011 is the second issue involving the radioactive material to surface this summer at Westinghouse. In July, the NRC reported that uranium had drained through a three-inch-hole in the plant’s floor this year, contaminating soil below the facility with high levels of the radioactive material.
Uranium is a radioactive substance that can cause kidney damage in people exposed to high enough amounts.
In the case of both leaks, however, DHEC and the NRC said they have no evidence uranium seeped into groundwater from the polluted soil or that it poses any threat to public health. Monitoring wells have not found evidence the uranium is moving off the property, and if it did, the flow of water is toward the Congaree River away from most people’s drinking water, state and federal officials say.
Even so, neighbors in lower Richland are concerned about pollution — and the lack of information.
They are particularly upset that the two agencies charged with protecting health and safety were unaware for years about the 2011 leak of uranium, which trickled from the pipe and into soil. Lower Richland residents worry that pollution from the pipe leak could contaminate wells they rely on for drinking water, even though regulators say there is no public threat.
Andrea Williams, who chairs a citizens group formed this week to monitor Westinghouse, said she’s bothered that the nuclear fuel factory did not report the uranium leak to NRC safety inspectors, DHEC or the public.
“It is very bewildering,’’ Williams said Wednesday. “They are supposed to be in communication with each other. Westinghouse has a responsibility to notify the NRC, as well as DHEC. If that was not done, it makes you feel that the integrity of the company was not there.’’
Richland County Councilwoman Dalhi Myers said that, despite assurances from DHEC and the NRC, no one can say when the leak found in 2011 occurred or how much uranium poured through the broken pipe.
“They don’t know if it started in 2011 or 2000,’’ Myers said.
If DHEC or the NRC determine that Westinghouse should have told the agencies about the leak reported in 2011, the agencies could take enforcement action, such as fines, against the company. But Myers questioned whether DHEC and the NRC have aggressively investigated the matter.
“I have not heard anybody begin to discuss civil penalties or fines, which is staggering,’’ Myers said.
Federal law requires extensive reporting by nuclear facilities when accidents occur, much of it focused on issues that could lead to a nuclear explosion or exposure to employees. It also requires that reports be filed when an event threatens the environment, if the NRC plans to tell another agency.
State law requires that water pollution leaks be reported to DHEC within 24 hours if the contamination is expected to “cause or contribute to an excursion’’ of water quality.
Ledford said that while “we know of no water quality concerns whatsoever,’’ it would have been helpful if Westinghouse had notified the agency’s safety inspectors of the 2011 leak discovery.
Ledford said his agency would have taken “necessary corrective actions’’ in 2011 if safety inspectors had known about the uranium spill. Those actions include documenting any contamination and monitoring test wells downstream to see if contamination was spreading, Ledford said.
In a June 2018 environmental assessment on whether to grant a new 40-year license to operate the plant, the NRC said the polluted soil threatened to eventually taint groundwater, creeks and ponds nearby. The NRC said the agency has in recent years begun to look more carefully at soil pollution at older nuclear sites.
“There is no way you can tell us we are overreacting,’’ state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said at a community meeting Monday night.
In the case of the leak this summer that drained through the plant’s floor, Westinghouse reported the problem to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the NRC on July 12. But in the case of the leak found in 2011, the company said it didn’t have to report the problem.
Sarah Cassella, a spokeswoman for Westinghouse, released a statement saying the company now is doing more work to learn about the release.
“Westinghouse is committed to acting promptly to report any incidents under our reporting requirements,’’ the company’s statement said. “With respect to a leak that occurred at our Columbia facility in 2011, it was not a reportable event.’’
The statement said the company included information in a report to the NRC about how it would shut down the site one day. The statement said Westinghouse is now in talks with DHEC and has begun an “effort to fully understand the leak’s impact’’ after talking with the NRC.
“We are committed to operating at the highest standard and look forward to ongoing communications with our stakeholders.”
According to the NRC, agency accountants learned of the leak in 2012, but the information was never relayed to the department’s safety inspectors. Accountants were told in a report that there would be the need for additional soil cleanup, Ledford said. Ledford said the report is not a public document and that he could not divulge the exact wording of how the information was provided to NRC accountants.
Ledford said safety inspectors only found out about the leak when they began preparing the 2018 environmental assessment on whether the plant should get a new 40-year operating license. During their study, they came across the report to accountants that mentioned the need for soil cleanup, he said.
The June environmental assessment says Westinghouse has no plans to clean up the polluted soil until it shuts down the plant, which would be no sooner than 2058.
Sen. Jackson has called for a cleanup of the soil sooner than 40 years. The polluted area is beneath a major plant building and could be difficult to clean up, records show.