Politics & Government

Small explosion and fire at Columbia nuclear plant bring more federal scrutiny

A nuclear fuel factory with a history of safety and pollution troubles near Columbia is under federal scrutiny after a fire erupted last week in a drum containing radioactive material.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission plans an inspection later this month at the Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel plant on Bluff Road to learn more about the incident, which occurred early Friday.

A federal report shows that a lid blew off the drum, dispersing some contents from the barrel and leading to the fire. The drum contained contaminated mop heads, filters, rags and laboratory waste that smoldered, before paper in the drum ignited, the report shows.

Several ounces of uranium 235, a radioactive heavy metal, were in the container, the report says.

“About 2 in the morning, (plant personnel) heard a loud noise and discovered the lid from the drum had blown off and smoke was issuing from the drum,’’ NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said. “They called the fire brigade out.’’

Inhaling or ingesting high concentrations of uranium can cause bone, lung and liver cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report says no one was injured and the public was in no danger, but the incident is the latest in a series of troubles that have plagued the nuclear fuel factory southeast of Columbia.

Tom Clements, a nuclear watchdog from Columbia, said the problems at the Westinghouse plant are worrisome.

“They just can’t get their operations straight where there are no problems,’’ Clements said. “It remains a concern that management of the operation is not as it should be.’’

The Westinghouse plant, established more than 50 years ago, drew public scrutiny and criticism last year following the leak of uranium through a hole in the floor. The public later learned of other leaks at the plant that had not been reported by Westinghouse to state or federal authorities, prompting intense criticism by neighbors who said they had been kept in the dark. Groundwater beneath the plant is contaminated and many people worry that it will spread off the site.

Three years ago, the NRC launched a major investigation of the plant, after learning that hazardous amounts of uranium had built up in an air scrubber. The amount of uranium found in the air pollution device was three times higher than the federal safety standard, raising concerns about whether workers could have been exposed. No one was injured, but some workers were laid off temporarily while part of the plant was shut down during the investigation. Problems with air pollution scrubbers dated back 10 years, federal officials said.

Westinghouse officials have pledged to improve operations at the plant and have said they are committed to keeping the public better informed.

The company said it has launched a detailed investigation of why the incident occurred and “has taken actions’’ to prevent future problems like the fire. Among the efforts underway are improving controls to make sure some materials are not mixed together. The company also is looking at adding vents to relieve pressure inside the drums and monitoring for heat build-ups.

“On Friday, June 12, a drum holding uranium-containing materials used in our operations, including mops, rags, laboratory waste and a small amount of paper, had a chemical reaction and ignited,’’ the company said in a statement Monday. “The materials had been packaged for uranium recovery and incineration. The fire was quickly extinguished by plant personnel, with no impact on people, the environment or the plant. The safety of our employees and community is our highest priority. Air samples taken within the area confirmed no impact to plant personnel, the public or the environment.

Meanwhile, the NRC report said no problems were found with other drums in the area where the fire occurred. The incident occurred in an area of the plant where uranium is recovered and recycled.

The Westinghouse plant is one of the Columbia area’s major employers, with about 1,000 workers. The 550,000-square-foot facility manufactures nuclear fuel pellets for use in commercial atomic power plants. The factory was established in 1969 in a rural area of eastern Richland County between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park.

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.
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