Up to 170 Westinghouse workers to temporarily lose jobs

COLUMBIA, SC Up to 170 Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant workers are being temporarily laid off as investigators try to determine why an “excessive’’ amount of radioactive material built up inside the Bluff Road facility this summer.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently dispatched a special inspection team to the plant after learning that enough uranium had been found in an air scrubber to raise concerns. The buildup did not result in any “safety related consequences” or injuries, but the NRC said “the potential for such consequences may have existed.’’

Records indicate that the amount of uranium exceeded a limit of 29 kilograms.

While the NRC investigation is ongoing, the plant’s operator, Westinghouse, voluntarily shut down part of the facility and began notifying some employees this week of a “temporary workforce reduction,’’ said company spokeswoman Courtney Boone.

Boone said 170 of the company’s approximately 1,000 employees in Columbia are affected by the job reduction decision. It was not known Thursday how long the workforce reduction would last.

“Many of the employees volunteered to take the time off; some were notified this week of their need to participate in the temporary work reduction,’’ she said.

Boone said affected employees are being offered no-interest loans while they are out of work. Medical benefits will be covered during the workforce reduction, she said. The force reduction is not because of safety concerns, she said.

The Westingthouse plant, located between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park, makes nuclear fuel for atomic power plants around the country.

The plant is a mainstay of the Columbia-area economy and often gets high marks from supporters. But the NRC also has hit Westinghouse with about a dozen enforcement actions in South Carolina during the past 20 years, most recently in 2011, records show.

In this case, NRC officials, who learned recently of the uranium buildup from Westinghouse officials, say an air scrubber at the plant contained “an unexpectedly large amount of material’’ inside. The agency characterized the amount as “excessive.’’

Once the material was analyzed, federal officials discovered that it contained uranium levels higher than allowed under NRC requirements, a news release said. Inspectors were on the site last week, Boone said.

Scrubbers are pollution control devices designed to prevent contaminants from getting into the environment. The area where the uranium buildup occurred supports a process of converting uranium hexafluoride into uranium dioxide powder, before being turned into pellets for commercial nuclear fuel rods.

NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said nuclear materials can cause an atomic reaction if not handled carefully, which is why the agency is taking the matter seriously.

“In a fuel facility, probably the biggest safety issue is getting either too much material or material in the wrong configuration so that you could potentially have criticality — basically a chain reaction that could cause some kind of flash explosion,’’ Hannah said Thursday. “It’s not as much of an off-site risk as it is to employees and workers in the area.’’

In addition to the risks of explosion, uranium can cause kidney damage in people who inhale or ingest the radioactive material, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Westinghouse could be fined if inspectors determine a company mistake led to the uranium buildup, Hannah said. Boone said her company is cooperating with investigators and was confident that the uranium issue did not threaten plant workers or the public.

“It’s important to know that no injuries or impact to public health, employee health or the environment resulted from the finding,’’ she said.

According to the NRC’s news release, a six-member team from the agency’s Atlanta and Rockville, Md., offices is investigating. The agency expects an inspection report to be issued within 30 days.

The initial problem was reported to the NRC July 14, agency records show. A report provided Thursday by the NRC said a limit of 29 kilograms of uranium was exceeded. The material found contained 87 kilograms of uranium, agency records show.

“This incident did not involve employee contamination or a nuclear criticality, but it shows the need for Westinghouse management to review some aspects of their operation,” NRC Region II Administrator Cathy Haney said in a news release. “Our inspection will evaluate these issues thoroughly and ensure they are being properly addressed.”