Westinghouse won’t clean up pollution for 40 years at nuclear plant near Columbia

After nuclear leak, community around Westinghouse plant calls for environment protections

Angry members of the Richland community interrogated executives of Westinghouse Electric Co. after uranium leaked out of the company's Columbia, SC location.
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Angry members of the Richland community interrogated executives of Westinghouse Electric Co. after uranium leaked out of the company's Columbia, SC location.

Seven years before a uranium leak was discovered at a Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory this summer, the toxic radioactive material trickled out of a pipe buried below the plant on Bluff Road.

That 2011 leak, unknown to many Lower Richland residents, sent uranium levels soaring to amounts not typically found in the area’s soggy soil, in one spot exceeding safe drinking-water standards.

But Westinghouse hasn’t cleaned up the polluted site — and it doesn’t plan to for at least 40 years — despite evidence the contamination will spread into creeks, ponds and groundwater, according to a June report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

If Westinghouse obtains a new 40-year operating license this year from the NRC, the cleanup would occur no sooner than 2058, when its Bluff Road plant would be shut down, federal records show. The NRC’s June environmental assessment says the contaminated soil is below a uranium recovery and recycling building on the Westinghouse site.

“Because the contaminated material is located beneath the ... building, the soil will not be remediated until decommissioning,’’ the NRC report said. “Therefore, the contaminated material will likely be a source of future ground-water and/or surface water contamination if the material leaches into the shallow water-table aquifer.’’

Here is what you need to know about the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant, Columbia, SC location.

Westinghouse does not know how long the uranium leak — discovered in 2011 — occurred or how much pollution escaped into the ground, the NRC report said.

The report is a concern to some Lower Richland residents, already upset about this summer’s leak of uranium through a three-inch crack in the nuclear fuel-rod plant’s floor. In that leak, discovered in June and reported to the public in late July, contamination levels more than 1,000 times above normal soil levels were discovered.

Uranium is a radioactive material that can cause kidney damage in people exposed to elevated levels.

Many people in the Bluff Road area drink from wells and worry about water pollution stemming from Westinghouse. Contamination also is a concern at Congaree National Park, just six miles from the fuel factory.

During a tense community meeting Monday, plant neighbors blasted Westinghouse over pollution at the site, safety lapses and what they said is the company’s reluctance to talk with residents who live near the fuel factory. The site has an extensive history of groundwater pollution.

Company executive Mike Annacone apologized to the overflow crowd, saying he was sorry the leak occurred and Westinghouse had failed to stay in touch with the community.

Now, some Westinghouse critics are upset about the 2011 leak.

They say it is hard to believe the NRC would allow pollution to remain in place for 40 years if the contamination threatens groundwater.

“You can’t tell me that is the only solution,’’ said Virginia Sanders, a Lower Richland resident and organizer with the national Sierra Club conservation group. “There has to be some way of cleaning up that plume, so that it is not just sitting there.’’

Sanders and Tom Clements, a local representative of Friends of the Earth, said the NRC should deny the proposed 40-year operating license for Westinghouse and consider issuing a shorter new license. Both also questioned why Westinghouse is seeking a 40-year operating license when its current license doesn’t expire until 2027.

“I don’t think the license should even be issued at this point,’’Sanders said. “There was no community involvement. What impact is this having on the community and the people around the plant?’’

Clements wrote the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday, asking the federal agency to delay any licensing decision. His letter asked the agency to hold a community meeting in Richland County, adding that circumstances had changed since Westinghouse applied for the license.

Westinghouse did not respond to questions from The State about the 2011 leak. But the company has begun monitoring the area affected by the leak and testing the soil, said Tom Vukovinsky, a senior fuel facility inspector with the NRC in Atlanta.

Westinghouse says cleanup could be expensive because the 2011 pollution is under a major building at the fuel-rod plant, Vukovinsky said.

A cleanup would involve excavating 10 feet of soil below the building, or about 82,000 square feet, according to the NRC report.

Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear engineer who heads the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, said state and federal regulators have questions to answer about what appears to be lax oversight of the plant. Despite concerns about groundwater contamination, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s June study said a new license for the plant will “not significantly affect the quality of the human environment.’’

Makhijani, who has read the NRC report, said one pocket of water near the 2011 leak had more than 1,000 times the level of uranium that is safe for drinking water. Uranium levels in the soil also were more than twice as high as naturally occurring, according to the report.

“Investigating this further is warranted,’’ Makhijani said.

Vukovinsky and Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the NRC, said pollution leaks primarily are the responsibility of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The NRC focuses on nuclear safety in the plant, they said.

DHEC, which ran Monday’s community meeting, has said it doesn’t know of any pollution that has trickled off the Westinghouse site and into the surrounding community. The agency said the June leak of uranium, if it gets into the groundwater, would flow away from most homes toward the Congaree River.

Efforts to get comment from DHEC on Thursday about the 2011 leak were unsuccessful.

The Westinghouse plant, first licensed by the NRC in 1969, lies in a rural, forested area with a smattering of homes and businesses nearby. Plant neighbors include longtime African-American residents and wealthy landowners who operate exclusive hunt clubs.

The Westinghouse plant employs about 1,000 workers, who are involved in various aspects of making nuclear fuel for the nation’s atomic power plants. The Richland County facility is one of only three fuel factories of its kind in the country.

Westinghouse is the same company whose bankruptcy helped derail the V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project in Fairfield County last summer.