Rusty shipping container full of nuclear refuse leaks at Westinghouse fuel plant

When nuclear plant workers looked in a huge, 40-foot long shipping container at an atomic fuel factory two months ago, they discovered a hole in the roof that allowed rainwater to leak inside, where barrels full of radioactive trash were stacked.

Then, the workers discovered water had dripped onto some of the drums, causing uranium to trickle out and into the soil below the Westinghouse atomic fuel rod plant southeast of Columbia, according to state and federal regulatory agencies. The leaking roof is the latest problem to surface at the 50-year-old fuel factory, where recent troubles have focused the spotlight on nuclear safety and operating practices.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control are looking into the matter, even as Westinghouse scrambles to improve the way it stores barrels of nuclear garbage at the Bluff Road plant. The problem was discovered May 31, according to DHEC.

“We are concerned,’’ said Tom Vukovinsky, an inspection official with the NRC in Atlanta. “We had an inspector look at this when he was out there roughly a month ago. So it is going to be in part of our inspection report that’s coming out. Because of all the other issues going on, it’s something we’re interested in.’’

The other issues he referred to are a series of spills and leaks during the past three years at Westinghouse, one of Columbia’s major employers with about 1,000 workers.

Located between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park, the nuclear plant leaked uranium last year through a hole in the floor of the 550,000-square-foot plant. Company officials later revealed there had been leaks in 2008 and 2011 that they had not reported to regulators. In 2016, the company allowed uranium to build up in an air pollution control device, a potentially dangerous situation that could have exposed nuclear plant workers to a burst of radiation. This summer, a small fire broke out in a drum full of waste.

In the latest incident to surface, uranium-tainted trash stored in barrels inside the leaking shipping container got wet and dripped uranium on the ground below the container. The amount of uranium in the soil in one spot below the container was nearly twice the safety standard of 11 parts per million, DHEC reported late Friday afternoon. Seventeen other soil tests showed uranium levels below the limit, DHEC reported.

The leaky shipping container is one of several dozen 40-foot long containers at the Westinghouse plant that have been used for years to store drums full of rags and mop heads contaminated with uranium, Vukovinsky, Westinghouse and DHEC officials said at a community meeting Thursday night in Hopkins.

A presentation showed scores of shipping containers on the site. These containers resemble the trailers on tractor-trailer trucks. Barrels are kept inside them.

The company periodically processes the waste material in the containers, squeezing uranium out so that the radioactive material can be used again at the nuclear fuel plant. Uranium, a major component in nuclear fuel, can be dangerous to people’s health if they are exposed in sufficient amounts.

Mike Annacone, Westinghouse’s plant manager, said his company already is taking steps to make sure similar leaks don’t occur in shipping containers that store nuclear waste.

In the past, Westinghouse checked the containers periodically, but staffers only looked inside from one end of the containers and could only see some of the drums stacked in the big shipping containers. Now, workers will thoroughly inspect the inside of the containers to make sure similar leaks don’t occur, he said.

“We should not allow that condition to exist on our site,’’ Annacone said of the deteriorating shipping containers.

Annacone said “a number of issues’’ through the years allowed the nuclear waste material to build up in containers, but he’s committed to correcting the problem. The material will be processed and removed from the site based on which barrels in the shipping containers contain the riskiest material, Annacone said.

The material inside the shipping containers will be processed to recover the uranium from the rags and mop heads, after which the company won’t store the material in the shipping containers any more, Annacone told the crowd at Lower Richland High School. As the containers are emptied, the soil will be checked for contamination, according to DHEC.

The effort could take more than a year, according to the NRC.

“It’s going to take us some time to process that material through our systems,’’ Annacone said. “But we have changed our inspection methodology, so that until they are completely removed from the site, we can assure ourselves we don’t have problems.’’

Tommy Crosby, a spokesman for DHEC, said his agency learned of the problem through a binding agreement DHEC struck this year with Westinghouse that requires the company to provide more notice to the department when problems occur. The agreement requires a more thorough assessment of environmental problems at the site, among other things.

The site has had extensive groundwater contamination for decades, including contamination from nitrate, radioactive materials and fluoride. Residents of the area have expressed multiple concerns that the leaks could threaten well water they depend on. DHEC says groundwater is flowing toward the Congaree River, rather than toward private wells.

Hopkins area resident Andrea Williams, who chairs a citizens committee looking into Westinghouse’s practices, said she’s glad the agreement with DHEC was in place because it forced Westinghouse to quickly notify DHEC and the public of the May 31 discovery of the leaking shipping container.

Her citizens committee also was informed by Westinghouse of the shipping container problem.

“They were more transparent than they have been,’’ she said, noting that the company didn’t properly inspect the shipping containers for years. “It is a concern. When are they going to move this? But at least they know it and are aware, and there is a correction plan.’’

Still, of the approximately 60 residents attending Thursday night’s meeting, many continued to urge Westinghouse to be more open with the public. People who live in eastern Richland County say the company historically has done a poor job communicating with them. The company has pledged to do better.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.