Politics & Government

Acid splashes worker at Westinghouse nuclear plant; employee sent to hospital

Five things to know about Columbia’s Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant

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

A worker at the Westinghouse atomic fuel factory near Columbia was transported to a hospital last week after spilling a toxic acid solution on his clothing while cleaning up, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC said the worker, whose name was not available, apparently was unhurt. He was released from the hospital after doctors examined him, according to the federal agency. The agency said hydrofluoric acid solution spilled onto the leg of the coverall the worker was wearing.

“The worker was cleaning up some (hydrofluoric acid) solution and transferring the material to another container,’’ NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said in an email.

Hannah said hydrofluoric acid is “pretty nasty stuff.’’ Even small splashes of highly concentrated hydrofluoric acid on people’s skin can be fatal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So far, the NRC has no reason to think the incident was a big deal, Hannah said. Hannah could not say whether the acid had leaked or spilled.

Westinghouse has filed a report with the NRC about the Nov. 19 incident, but Hannah said the report is not yet ready for public release. Westinghouse said the employee came in contact with a liquid that included hydrofluoric acid but did not show symptoms of exposure during his visit to the hospital.

“The employee was examined on-site and also sent to a local medical facility for observation out of an abundance of caution,’’ Westinghouse said in a statement Tuesday. “Having exhibited no symptoms, the employee was discharged. We promptly reported the event per our requirements, as the individual had minor radioactive material contamination on his hands. The health and safety of our employees is our first priority, and we are conducting a full internal review of the cause of the issue.”

Last week’s incident is the latest in a series of problems that have arisen at the nuclear plant.

Two years ago, the NRC discovered uranium had built up in an air pollution control device, which could have endangered workers with a small burst of radiation. This year, the agency discovered uranium solution had eaten a hole through the plant’s floor and spilled into the ground. The agency also found out this year about previously undisclosed leaks from 2008 and 2011.

The NRC is investigating the latest incidents.

Neighbors of Westinghouse have been critical of the facility, saying the company has not been forthcoming with them. They worry about how pollution might affect groundwater that supplies backyard wells, but state officials have said drinking water in the area is safe.

Lower Richland residents are worried about leaks from the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant near their homes. At a meeting in August, residents voiced those concerns to federal regulators.

Westinghouse has pledged to be more open about its operations, which it has promised to improve. Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said the company informed him of the recent incident.

“Westinghouse did reach out, which I give kudos for, to let me know,’’ Jackson said. “That is the first time that has happened in a while.’’

The Westinghouse plant on Bluff Road, which opened in 1969, is a major employer in the Columbia area, with more than 1,000 workers. The plant makes nuclear fuel rods that provide energy for atomic power plants across the country. The factory is one of only a handful of its kind in the United States.

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