Nuclear leak sends worker fleeing to shower

Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant on Bluff Road
Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant on Bluff Road The State file photo

A solution toxic enough to cause chemical burns sprayed a worker at a S.C. nuclear-fuel factory last week, forcing the employee to take an emergency shower to wash the material off his arms.

The solution, uranyl nitrate, leaked when a hose disconnected while the material was being unloaded at the Westinghouse plant southeast of Columbia.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Roger Hannah said the incident isn’t serious enough to warrant a special investigation. The worker’s quick action prevented burns or any serious injury, according to Westinghouse.

But Tom Clements, an adviser to the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said the spill is worth noting, considering the company has had other safety issues in the past year.

“This is, in fact, an accident of serious nature as it resulted in radioactive contamination of a worker and spillage of a uranium solution in the facility,’’ Clements said. “This accident merits a special investigation by the NRC and full explanation to the public about why a radioactive solution was spilled and how the spill was dealt with.’’

Westinghouse spokeswoman Sarah Cassella said her company is looking into the incident. In the meantime, it has taken safety precautions to prevent workers from being exposed in the future. Among those is requiring workers to wear protective suits while connecting pressurized hoses.

“We have opened a formal investigation into the incident as part of our corrective action program and will take additional measures as a result of that investigation’s findings and recommendations,’’ Cassella said in a statement Tuesday.

The spill follows a detailed safety investigation by the NRC last year at the fuel plant. In 2016, Westinghouse discovered that uranium had built up in an air pollution scrubber at levels high enough to have caused a minor nuclear reaction, or explosion.

No one was injured in the 2016 incident, but Westinghouse pledged to make safety improvements after the NRC’s probe. The company also brought in new management.

Last week’s spill was reported Oct. 18. Six to eight gallons leaked outside the Westinghouse plant in a loading area atop a concrete pad, the company said. Although the worker was sprayed, the general public was not at risk, the company said.

According to Westinghouse, uranyl nitrate is a feed product for making uranium dioxide, a key ingredient in the production of nuclear fuel at the Bluff Road plant. The plant has two lines equipped to run uranyl nitrate, Cassella said. The material can cause acid burns and contamination of the skin. It also can be toxic if ingested.

Westinghouse’s Richland County plant, located between Congaree National Park and Interstate 77, is one of a handful in the country that makes fuel for commercial atomic energy plants.

The Bluff Road plant employs about 1,000. Westinghouse, a division of Toshiba, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year after a nuclear construction project north of Columbia ran over budget and behind schedule.