Nuclear plant executives face skeptical crowd at Columbia session

Inside Columbia’s Westinghouse factory is extensive equipment to make nuclear fuel for atomic power plants.
Inside Columbia’s Westinghouse factory is extensive equipment to make nuclear fuel for atomic power plants.

COLUMBIA, SC Apologizing for a breach of safety standards at a Columbia nuclear fuel plant, Westinghouse Electric Co. leaders said Tuesday they’ve instituted new procedures and installed equipment they believe will prevent any more hazardous accumulations of uranium on the site.

The company said it has made “extensive” improvements to an air pollution control device that last year had accumulated enough uranium to potentially cause a small nuclear explosion. Westinghouse also has launched more rigorous inspection programs, while upgrading training and encouraging employees to report any safety concerns they have at the facility.

During a public meeting in Columbia, company officials conceded that Westinghouse needed to improve the safety culture at the 48-year-old facility on Bluff Road.

The plant, just up the road from Congaree National Park, has had a string of safety violations during the past two decades, most recently the uranium buildup last year. The Westinghouse factory is one of a handful in the U.S. that make fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.

“Culture is a hard thing to change,’’ Westinghouse Columbia vice president Mike Annacone said in outlining changes. “For us, clearly, nuclear safety culture is the foundation of our (improvement) effort.’’

The 2016 accumulation was not significant enough to send uranium into the air or to threaten the general public, but it could have led to a burst of radiation and exposed workers to potentially lethal doses, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The plant employs about 1,000 people..

Annacone, brought in last year to fix problems cited by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said leadership at the plant has to be “aligned around the right values’’ that stress safety.

“We are starting, really, with the leadership team,’’ he said.

Company executive Michele DeWitt said Westinghouse fell down on the job when it let uranium accumulate in the air pollution device, known as a scrubber. The problems were discovered last May and elevated uranium levels were confirmed in July 2016, forcing part of the plant to temporarily shut down. The federal government is considering enforcement action against the company, including fines.

“We do recognize that our performance did not meet expectations,’’ she said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which held the meeting to discuss Westinghouse’s performance, said it is working to improve its own procedures so that problems like those from last year don’t occur. The NRC had focused on what it perceived to be higher risk areas of the plant. But it needed to look more carefully at the air polluiton scrubber, the agency’s Mark Lesser said.

“We didn’t focus a lot of attention on that, so we were not looking at the scrubber and, perhaps, other systems as rigorously,’’ Lesser said.

Some in the crowd of about 50 questioned why Westinghouse and the NRC had not told the public about the uranium buildup at the plant sooner. The uranium buildup became known last summer when The State newspaper wrote about it.

Another question centered on why the company has had problems since last summer’s uranium issue. Earlier this year, the NRC cited Westinghouse for allowing uranium to build up for 23 hours late in 2016. The NRC said it will inspect the plant more frequently, in part because of the problem late last year.

“It seems especially concerning that, after this problem, they had another problem,’’ said Kyle Lacio, a Columbia resident skeptical of Westinghouse’s assurances.

In addition to Westinghouse’s promise to improve, NRC officials said they are monitoring the company’s recent bankruptcy to make sure it can pay to comply with safety requirements at the plant. So far, the company is meeting its obligations, Lesser said.

“We do have a bankruptcy review panel established within the NRC to monitor very closely the developments,’’ Lesser said.

Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in March, casting doubt on the future of the company’s nuclear operations, primarily whether twin nuclear plants will be completed for SCE&G in Fairfield County. Some also have speculated that the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant could be sold, but company spokeswoman Sarah Casella said she had no information on that.