Nuclear leak stirs unease in Lower Richland community
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will take a closer look at a troubled nuclear fuel factory on Bluff Road as information surfaces about leaks that date back at least a decade, federal officials said.
NRC officials said they have learned about leaks from 2008 that were not reported to the agency by Westinghouse, the owner and operator of the 49-year-old atomic fuel assembly plant. The NRC said it should have been told about the pollution leaks, even though notice was not always legally required.
To learn more, the NRC will reopen an environmental study of whether the Westinghouse facility poses a danger to Richland County if the company receives a new operating license, agency officials said at a community meeting Thursday night in Hopkins.
Westinghouse is seeking a 40-year license, but the NRC must satisfy federal concerns before the agency can make a decision on the Westinghouse request. The NRC completed an environmental study in June that said the plant does not pose a major hazard to the surrounding environment, even though the facility has had past problems.
“We are going to be asking for additional information from Westinghouse on the various leaks,’’ said Brian Smith, a deputy director for safety and environment at the NRC’s Maryland headquarters.
After the meeting, Smith told The State the decision to reopen the environmental study “was based on new information,’’ including leaks tied to a 2011 uranium spill beneath the plant. The NRC has said it did not know about the 2011 uranium spill until the fall of 2017.
Now, it has learned of pipe breaks in the same area beneath the plant that occurred in 2008, said Smith and Tom Vukovinsky, a senior fuel facility inspector with the NRC in Atlanta. Westinghouse disclosed this information to the NRC amid growing questions about the 2011 leak, officials said.
“They identified a couple of previous leaks,’’ Smith said. “Westinghouse, in responding to all the recent events, has started going back through their records and made us aware of this.’’
The 2008 pollution leaks are the third to surface publicly this summer. In July, the NRC learned that uranium drained through a hole in the floor of the plant building. The NRC’s environmental report in June mentioned the 2011 uranium leak that had not been reported. In examining the circumstances surrounding the 2011 spill, leaks from 2008 were discovered, according to the NRC.
A consultant’s letter, obtained Friday by The State, indicates that a broken pipe spilled radioactive material into the soil in 2008. The letter said Westinghouse found “elevated radionuclide concentration’’ in both process wastewater from the plant and the soil. The company then fixed the pipe, the letter said. Three years later, contamination was found in the soil after Westinghouse discovered pipes were “highly corroded,’’ according to the May 31 letter from consultant AECOM to DHEC.
Uranium is a radioactive material used in the production of nuclear fuel. People exposed to significant amounts of uranium can suffer kidney damage or other ailments. A key unanswered question about all the spills is how much leaked into the ground.
The NRC’s decision to reopen the environmental study is significant because it delays an agency decision on whether to grant the new license, which would keep the plant operating another 40 years. Depending on what the agency learns about leaks, the NRC could shorten the time the license is good for or take enforcement action against Westinghouse.
Thursday’s announcement was welcome news to many in the crowd gathered at a county building adjacent to Lower Richland High School.
“I am elated that they are opening this back up,’’ said Virginia Sanders, a Lower Richland resident who works with the national Sierra Club. “How can you give a license based on this information? The people who are most negatively impacted should have input on whether that license should be renewed.’’
During the meeting, people also learned that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control had tested seven private wells and a public well to determine whether uranium and other radioactive pollutants had seeped into drinking water. Many are concerned that leaks at Westinghouse have polluted groundwater that they depend on for drinking. The public well tested is for a small utility, the Hopkins Community Water System, DHEC said Friday.
DHEC says it does not believe contamination on the Westinghouse property would affect drinking wells because groundwater flows away from populated areas toward the Congaree River. But officials said the department had tested wells in the area to make sure. Full test results will not be available for several weeks, at which time DHEC will announce its findings, said Mike Marcus, the agency’s water bureau chief. The agency is testing for uranium, radium, heavy metals and nitrates, among other things.
Marcus said the agency is now considering whether to test to see if radioactive contaminants have reached the Congaree River.
Thursday’s meeting drew an array of questions from Lower Richland residents and environmentalists, who expressed concern about Westinghouse’s operating practices and any effect the plant might have on the area. Among the questions were whether more wells would be tested.
Richland County Councilwoman Dalhi Myers said she is working to tap emergency county funds to help pay for more well testing in the area.
Some of those attending the public session, set up by County Councilman Norman Jackson, said Westinghouse should pay for the tests because the company has polluted groundwater on the property.
The Westinghouse plant opened in 1969 in a rural area of Richland County. The plant is a major employer for the Columbia area with more than 1,000 workers. It makes nuclear fuel rods that are used by many of the nation’s atomic power plants.
The plant, however, has had plenty of troubles through the years. It has had dozens of run-ins with the NRC over nuclear safety issues and has polluted groundwater on the site. Some of the groundwater pollution has existed since the 1980s. Efforts to clean up groundwater have not succeeded in ridding the site of contamination.
Westinghouse has said it is trying to instill a new safety culture at the plant, bringing in new management several years ago that is now working with the NRC to learn more about leaks. But a top official conceded during a recent community meeting that the company has not done a good job of staying in touch with the community.
Citizens have since formed their own committee to monitor Westinghouse. The area near the site is composed of a mixture of modest homes and exclusive hunt clubs. The site is on Bluff Road between Congaree National Park and Interstate 77, just outside Columbia.