Leak-plagued nuclear plant gets blessing of federal safety regulators, despite concerns

Despite a five-decade history of leaks and spills at the Westinghouse atomic fuel factory near Columbia, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is downplaying the possibility of major environmental damage at the site over the next 40 years.

But in releasing a study of the plant’s impact on the environment, the federal oversight agency drew withering criticism for not considering how past operating practices might foreshadow future factory operations.

“The past predicts the future,’’ said Virginia Sanders, an eastern Richland County resident who works with the national Sierra Club. “How could you expect all of a sudden for Westinghouse to start improving their safety standards when over the years, time after time, they have had accidents at the plant?’’

The NRC’s environmental assessment is significant because it will help the agency decide whether to issue a 40-year license so the plant can continue operating. Federal regulators say the plant will have some impact on the environment, but they don’t think the damage will be substantial because many of Westinghouse’s past problems are being addressed.

The report said the NRC determined that “there could be noticeable impacts to the soil, surface water and groundwater; however, the impacts will be adequately monitored and mitigated. Therefore, the NRC’s evaluation preliminarily concludes that continued operations for an additional 40 years would not have a significant impact on the environment.’’

Located on Bluff Road between Columbia and Congaree National Park, the Westinghouse fuel factory began to take a toll on the environment not long after opening in 1969, records show.

Impacts to the environment date to the early 1970s, when ammonia and fluoride spilled, federal records show. The factory also is blamed for a fish kill in 1980 and for allowing toxic nitrates to seep into groundwater in the 1980s.

Problems have continued in recent years, with the discovery since 2016 of radioactive leaks and the buildup of nuclear materials at the fuel factory. In the latter case, the buildup could have caused a burst of radiation near workers.

Sanders and Tom Clements, a nuclear safety watchdog from Columbia, said the NRC’s assessment is hard for the agency to justify.

“There were already environmental impacts and there will be in the future,’’ Clements said. “They should have not made the determination the license should be extended 40 years because the documentation doesn’t support that.’’

The Westinghouse plant is important nationally as a source of material for power plants and locally for the jobs it produces. It is one of only three nuclear fuel factories in the country, supplying fuel rods to commercial power plants across the United States. It employs more than 1,000 workers, many of them skilled in nuclear materials production.

Clements and Sanders said they understand the factory’s importance in the national nuclear industry, but said the NRC should consider a new license for as little as 10 years, instead of 40 years. That would allow the NRC to see how well Westinghouse complies with federal and state environmental laws as the company seeks to improve operations, Clements and Sanders said.

Sanders also said the NRC didn’t look carefully enough at how climate change might increase flood threats at Westinghouse, which lies in a soggy, wetlands-studded area. As the earth’s temperatures heat up, heavier rains and more frequent floods are an increasing concern, scientists say. The fuel factory grounds were soaked during a historic 2015 rain storm, when two waste lagoons overflowed, the NRC report said.

Westinghouse has acknowledged problems through the years but has pledged to do a better job running the plant and keeping neighbors informed of major issues there.

The company and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control say groundwater pollution on the property has not escaped the site. Private drinking water wells used by many people in the Hopkins area also are not in the path of the pollution, if contaminants should ever drain off the property, regulators have said. But streams that feed into the Congaree River are in the path.

Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the NRC in Atlanta, said the agency’s review is based more on environmental impacts of future plant operations and less on past problems. If the agency uses the environmental report to justify giving Westinghouse a new license, the NRC will keep close tabs on the plant, Hannah said.

“When we grant a license to a facility like Westinghouse, we do not grant a license and then walk away,’’ he said. “There are ongoing inspections that look at their operational activity on a periodic basis, and they are required to report certain events to us. It’s not like you are issuing a license and don’t do any more inspections.’’

Hannah also said some of the problems Westinghouse has encountered are not under his agency’s authority, such as non-radioactive pollution. Some of that falls under DHEC. The NRC’s focus is on how radioactive materials are handled.

Westinghouse issued a statement Wednesday, saying it “is dedicated to ensuring our operations produce high quality products in a manner that ensures the safety of our employees, the public and the environment.’’

It was not known this week when the NRC will decide on a new license, but the existing license doesn’t expire until 2027, records show. The NRC will hold a public meeting Nov. 14 at 5:30 p.m. in the Medallion Conference Center, 7309 Garners Ferry Road, to discuss the proposed license renewal and environmental report. Westinghouse officials are expected to attend.

The NRC environmental assessment notes that Westinghouse will monitor dozens of new wells to get a better handle on pollution at the site. The company also has a binding agreement with DHEC to study and contain contamination.

Westinghouse has begun testing for uranium and technicium 99, two radioactive pollutants, according to the assessment. The new study says uranium and technicium 99 were found in December 2018 in test wells on the Westinghouse property at levels above safe drinking water standards. These pollutants can be hazardous to human health. Uranium, for instance, can cause liver damage in people who consume high amounts in water.

The Westinghouse site has two plumes of radioactive groundwater. The testing will determine where the radioactive pollution is coming from and whether it is seeping off site, according to the NRC study.

“For the renewed license, (Westinghouse’s) monitoring program is substantially different from its current program due to groundwater contamination,’’ the NRC report said. The company will “sample 59 groundwater wells and analyze for uranium and TC-99.’’

Even so, Westinghouse says it has no plans to clean up pollution under buildings at the plant site until it shuts down the fuel factory, which would be in 40 years if the new license is approved. DHEC officials had no immediate comment on the federal environmental assessment, except to say the agency is studying it and will provide comments on the draft.

This month’s NRC report is a revised version of a 2018 study by the NRC that found no significant impacts from the proposal to relicense the Westinghouse plant. The 2018 study was reopened for further work after the NRC learned of new and previously unreported leaks at the fuel factory.

The 2019 updated study, while including some of the same conclusions, took a look at those leaks.

Among the leaks examined in the 2019 report was a uranium spill through a hole in the floor of the plant in the summer of 2018, as well as the discovery that leaks had also occurred in 2008 and 2011 but had not been reported by Westinghouse to the NRC. The reporting wasn’t required, but federal officials said Westinghouse should have flagged the problems to the agency.

The study also looked in more detail at how relicensing the plant might disproportionately affect minority populations nearby. But the report concluded that minority communities would not be impacted any more than other communities.

“Based on the analyses presented in this chapter of (the updated report), human health and environmental effects from the continued operation of the (factory) on those populations are not expected to be disproportionately high and adverse,’’ the study said.

Uranium was not found to be polluting private drinking water wells in the area, nor had contaminants had a major impact on the Congaree River, popular with anglers, the study said. The study said groundwater pollution is an ongoing issue, but not a threat.

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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.