Nuclear-safety concerns linger at Westinghouse plant

Westinghouse atomic fuel plant southeast of Columbia, SC.
Westinghouse atomic fuel plant southeast of Columbia, SC.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will increase scrutiny of a Columbia atomic fuel factory after nearly a year of concerns about safety and the buildup of uranium at the 48-year-old plant.

Since finding an accumulation of uranium in an air pollution control device last summer, the NRC has cited one additional violation related to the same piece of equipment in the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant off Bluff Road, federal records show.

In the most recent case, the company potentially allowed uranium to build up for 23 hours late in 2016 in the pollution control device. Westinghouse did not properly restart nozzles on the device, known as a scrubber, that keep processed water flowing, a Jan. 27 NRC violation notice says.

That finding, to be discussed Tuesday night at a meeting in Columbia, follows the discovery months earlier that enough uranium had built up in the scrubber to have caused a small burst of radiation. No explosion occurred, but the issue was significant enough for Westinghouse to shut down part of the plant for several months while it worked to make improvements. The closed portion of the plant has since been restarted.

As a result of problems at the plant, the NRC says it will conduct comprehensive performance reviews annually instead of every two years.

Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the NRC, said his agency is satisfied the plant is safe, but he said the department is still assessing whether to fine Westinghouse over the nuclear safety violations. “They have addressed all the immediate issues,’’ Hannah said. “What we are looking at is the enforcement aspect.’’

A Westinghouse spokeswoman declined comment Monday, but company officials have previously said they are committed to nuclear safety. The company brought in a new vice president last year to oversee improvements at the plant.

Tom Clements, who heads the Savannah River Site Watch environmental group, said he’s concerned about the Westinghouse plant “because the problems are ongoing.’’

Tuesday’s NRC meeting is at the State Museum on Gervais Street at 6 p.m.

The Westinghouse fuel plant, built in 1969, employs about 1,000 people. The 555,000-square-foot plant makes nuclear fuel for use in commercial atomic power plants. It is located in a mostly wooded area between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park along the Congaree River.

The plant is owned by Westinghouse Corp., which recently filed for bankruptcy. The company, the chief contractor on an atomic reactor construction project in Fairfield County, has not indicated what will ultimately happen to the fuel plant in Richland County. But an official with SCE&G, the utility building the Fairfield plants, said recently the Bluff Road factory could be sold to raise revenue.