Workers who trudged through nuke plant contributed to June uranium leak, report says

Workers at the Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory for years walked across a plastic liner that was supposed to keep toxic uranium acid from leaking out of the Lower Richland plant.

All that foot traffic eventually weakened the liner, which covered the plant’s concrete floor. And this summer, Westinghouse discovered that a uranium solution had seeped through the liner, eaten a hole in the plant’s floor and trickled into the earth.

That problem is among concerns cited in a federal report that takes Westinghouse to task for not properly maintaining key equipment designed to keep safe the Bluff Road plant.

The Oct. 5 Nuclear Regulatory Commission report says Westinghouse violated atomic standards by failing to ensure that certain safety systems worked, as required.

Westinghouse wasn’t conducting detailed inspections to find problems in a section of the plant where toxic acid is mixed for production of nuclear fuel rods, the federal inspection report shows. That acidic solution deteriorated concrete after it seeped onto the plant’s floor for a “prolonged” period of time, the report said.

The report said several safety systems, designed to contain leaks, failed. As a result, “hydrofluoric acid solution was spilled’’ on June 16 from a process tank through the floor.

“They were not doing their maintenance inspections correctly or adequately,’’ Tom Vukovinsky, a senior fuel facility inspector with the NRC, said of Westinghouse.

The NRC’s findings add to a series of questions raised this year about how Westinghouse has operated the 550,000-square-foot factory.

Since discovering the uranium solution had leaked through the plant’s floor this summer, residents of the the Lower Richland community near the factory also have learned about other leaks, previously unknown. The NRC acknowledged recently it did not know for years about leaks in 2008 and 2011, which has caused concern among nearby residents.

The Westinghouse plant has a three-decade-long history of polluting groundwater on its property. But regulators say the polluted water has not seeped off the site and into the surrounding community, where many people drink from wells.

Because of community concerns, the NRC says it will conduct more environmental studies before deciding whether to issue Westinghouse a new operating license. The company wants a new 40-year license, but anti-nuclear activists and some local residents say the renewal period should be shorter because of the company’s history.

Westinghouse officials had no immediate comment. However, they said they were working on a response to the report.

The report centers on an area of the plant known as the HF Spiking Station, where materials are mixed for use in the fuel-rod production process. The spiking station includes a large tank that sits atop a concrete floor. The floor is surrounded by a low containment wall, which is supposed to keep toxic material from escaping the area if it leaks from the tank.

But cracks and leaks allowed some uranium acid to escape the plant, records show.

According to that report, the plant did not have a maintenance program to prevent problems with a pipe joint that leaked toxic solution, as recommended by the pipe joint’s manufacturer.

At the same time, Westinghouse’s inspections were not detailed enough to detect problems with the liner that ultimately leaked, the report said. No system was in place to check below the liner to see if the concrete floor was holding up, the report said.

Inspectors found evidence that leaks could have occurred before this year. The plastic liner “had been previously repaired with numerous patches, indicating that damage to the liner had occurred in the past,’’ the report said.

Westinghouse also didn’t keep workers out of the area where the leaks occurred, according to the report. The NRC says foot traffic across the liner “allowed process fluid to contact the liner, resulting in the trapping of moisture between the liner and the diked concrete surface.’’

One issue raised in the NRC report focuses on a retaining wall, or dike, surrounding the tank area. It says cracks were found in the dike, a problem that if allowed to worsen, could have endangered workers inside the plant.

The dike is intended to keep leaked acid solution from spreading into a wide area of the plant. That would pose a threat because the solution is highly caustic to people who touch it. It also is an air pollutant, irritating lungs and making breathing difficult as vapors rise into the air.