Nuclear fuel plant under gun to improve safety in wake of uranium buildup, explosion concerns

The Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant southeast of Columbia
The Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant southeast of Columbia

Under scrutiny and facing possible federal fines, the owner of a Columbia atomic fuel plant has agreed to make safety improvements following a buildup of uranium that regulators said could have resulted in a nuclear accident.

Westinghouse must take the steps at its Bluff Road plant before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will allow the company to restart part of the facility that was shut down earlier this summer, according to a news release Friday from the atomic oversight agency. The shutdown has resulted in the temporary layoff of about one-tenth of the company’s 1,000 member workforce.

Westinghouse spokeswoman Courtney Boone said the company will make improvements and is “actively engaged with the NRC to restart.’’ No timetable for the restart was available Friday afternoon.

The discovery of the uranium buildup, reported to the NRC last month, is a substantial concern to the agency. Records show uranium was about three times the level legally allowed in the area where it was found.

Elevated amounts of uranium in a plant scrubber raised the possibility of a “criticality’’ event, or one that could have caused a small explosion at the facility. Allowing nuclear materials to go critical is one of the most serious problems that can occur at a nuclear fuel plant, NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said. Excessive amounts of radioactive material can cause a critical nuclear reaction.

The Westingthouse plant, located between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park, makes nuclear fuel for atomic power plants around the country. Boone said that despite the shutdown of part of the factory, Westinghouse expects to meet production schedules for power plants.

The NRC said in its news release Friday that Westinghouse has agreed to perform an in-house investigation of how the problem occurred, revise its “safety culture,’’ update maintenance procedures, improve equipment, and train staffers who operate and maintain the area where the problems occurred. The company also must retain an independent criticality safety expert to examine issues at the plant.

Hannah said the NRC is concerned because the scrubber where the problem occurred apparently had not been cleaned out, which led to the uranium buildup. Scrubbers are devices used in industrial processes to catch pollutants before they get into the environment, but they must be maintained to work properly.

“One of the things they are implementing is changes to their maintenance procedures, their cleaning procedures,’’ Hannah said.

Bob Alvarez, a former senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton, said the amount of uranium over the limit is notable and could have proven deadly to plant workers if an explosion occurred. The NRC said 29 kilograms of uranium are allowed in the scrubber area, but records show 87 kilograms were found there.

“You could have severe exposure to workers and a release of radioactivity,’’ he said. “These kinds of events don’t happen all that often.’’

The NRC’s letter reduces to writing the procedures Westinghouse has agreed to take to avoid future uranium buildups, but the federal agency continues to investigate the circumstances around the problem. Officials from its offices in Rockville, Md., and Atlanta are among those investigating.

Hannah said his agency could issue a fine when its probe is finished. A report of the investigation is due a month after the probe is done. Westinghouse has been the subject of about a dozen NRC enforcement actions in South Carolina during the past 20 years, records show.

For now, the NRC is satisfied with Westinghouse’s response.

“The commitments ..... will greatly reduce the likelihood of such incidents in the future,” said NRC Region II Administrator Cathy Haney. “Westinghouse management has cooperated fully and has assured us of their commitment to these corrective actions and continued safe operations.”