After years of scrutiny, a South Carolina nuclear fuel factory considered vital to the nation’s atomic energy production won a key approval Friday to continue operating another four decades, despite its history of accidents and water pollution.
Federal regulators approved an environmental study that recommends the Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory southeast of Columbia receive a new 40-year license, virtually assuring that the license will be issued this fall.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had considered issuing only a 20-year license because of the safety mishaps and pollution that have occurred at the Westinghouse plant on Bluff Road. But in a federal notice Friday, the NRC said its staff had reviewed a list of environmental issues associated with Westinghouse and determined the new license was warranted.
Westinghouse has tried for eight years to gain a new operating license for the plant, which sits on an 1,156-acre site in eastern Richland County about four miles from Congaree National Park. Groundwater contamination and spills of nuclear material are among the environmental problems Westinghouse has had, particularly in recent years — and neighbors have voiced displeasure with how the factory has operated in the predominantly Black community.
Federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, added weight to the chorus of concerns, saying last year the license should not be approved unless an array of environmental problems were resolved. The Interior Department even recommended a 20-year license, instead of 40, in part because of multiple leaks and spills that have polluted the ground and groundwater. The department oversees Congaree National Park.
Westinghouse’s troubles were pronounced enough that the NRC took the unusual step of conducting two major environmental studies to determine how the plant’s future operation might affect the environment. A first environmental study, which recommended continued operation, was deemed inadequate. The second study that was approved Friday, known as an Environmental Impact Statement, looked more deeply at the potential effect the plant would have on the surrounding environment if it continues to operate during the next 40 years.
The question has been whether the license should be for 40 years, as Westinghouse has said it should be, or for a lesser amount of time because of the environmental and safety concerns, many of which have surfaced in the past five years. Some environmentalists and people who live near the plant have said the license should be for 10 or 20 years — if issued at all.
Westinghouse has said it is working to make improvements, and records indicate it has had fewer mishaps in the past two years. The company had no immediate reaction to the NRC’s decision.
The Westinghouse plant, established in 1969, is one of the Columbia area’s major employers, with about 1,000 workers. It is located on a quiet stretch of Bluff Road near Hopkins, a small community of most African American residents. The 550,000-square-foot plant makes fuel rods for use in atomic power plants. Nuclear material at the site is low-enriched uranium, not as dangerous as other types of atomic material but it that still has hazards.
Westinghouse’s process involves handling small pellets and stuffing them into long rods about for use in power plants. Uranium hexafluoride is converted to uranium dioxide at the plant.
The company’s stature as an economic engine in Richland County is significant, drawing praise from Gov. Henry McMaster and local business leaders.
It is also vital to the nation’s ability to make nuclear power. The fuel factory is one of three of its kind in the United States. The other two are in Washington state and in North Carolina. About 10 percent of the power generated in the United States comes from fuel made at the Columbia-area plant, the company says.
In addition to its main business, the Westinghouse site has a defense-related mission: producing metal bars that are shipped to Tennessee and made radioactive. The then-radioactive bars are in turn shipped from Tennessee to South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, where tritium — a key ingredient in nuclear bombs — is extracted.
Gov. McMaster’s nuclear advisory committee supports the 40 year license renewal, and McMaster recently praised a plan by Westinghouse to invest $131 million in the aging fuel factory..
““We think the 40 years is most appropriate,’’ advisory panel chairman Rick Lee told The State recently. “Twenty years in that market space is not a very long time by refueling standards. Unless somebody has a really prevailing argument, it would be hard to imagine why it would be 20.’’
In a preliminary version of the environmental impact statement, the NRC had recommended a new 40 year license, not only because of the plant’s importance to the nuclear power industry, but also because the agency did not think environmental threats are great enough to warrant denying the license.
Virginia Sanders, a Lower Richland environmental activist and Sierra Club official, said the plant’s continued existence threatens the environment, particularly as more intense rains related to the changing climate pound the Columbia area. The concern is pollution from the site could wash into the surrounding community.
“That plant is over 50 years old. That plant should never have been put there in the first place,’’ Sanders said. “Anything in Lower Richland is on low land. And with the numbers of flooding events on the East Coast and other climate change events, that plant should not be operating there. I’m just waiting for the day when a catastrophe happens.’’
Tom Clements, a nuclear safety watchdog from Columbia, said he’s disappointed in Friday’s decision, but not surprised. He called on the NRC to reconsider its decision.
“It has been clear from the start of the license renewal process that the NRC was going to do what Westinghouse requested in spite of a long list of incidents at the facility and even an admission by the NRC that release of contaminants in the future was reasonably foreseeable,” he said in an email to The State. “The 40-year license extension guarantees the risk of accidents and releases that will impact the environment and possibly human health over 40 years. Unfortunately, I now anticipate that careful behavior shown by Westinghouse during the period of the EIS preparation will be relaxed as Westinghouse is essentially now being given a license to pollute.’’
The Westinghouse plant’s environmental and safety challenges emerged within years of the plant opening in 1969. Many of the problems have centered on the company’s failure to handle materials so that they would not create small nuclear accidents that could endanger workers. Many of those concerns can be traced to the early 1980s. The problems continued until through 2020.
Since 1980, federal and state regulators have discovered at least 50 different environmental and safety problems at the plant, according to newspaper clippings and government records reviewed by The State.. In some cases, the NRC repeatedly told the company to make improvements, but Westinghouse did not move quickly enough to suit the agency.
Two of the biggest incidents in the past 20 years involved the build up of uranium, a nuclear material, in plant equipment — deficiencies that could have endangered workers.
The NRC fined Westinghouse $24,000 in 2004 after learning uranium had accumulated in an incinerator to unsafe levels over an eight-year period. The company had assumed the uranium levels were safe, but the problem was discovered in 2004 by an employee. The excess uranium could have caused a nuclear accident that could have injured or killed workers.
In 2016, Westinghouse discovered that uranium had accumulated in an air pollution control device — known as a scrubber — to levels that were three times higher than a federal safety standard. Under pressure to explain why the buildup occurred, Westinghouse’s internal inspectors told the NRC that the company had not done enough to ensure employees knew enough about safety in the air scrubber. The company inspectors also said Westinghouse didn’t have strong enough procedures to keep uranium from building up and had a “less than questioning’’ attitude about procedures to prevent a nuclear accident.
Two years later, a leak of uranium through a hole in the plant floor brought a barrage of complaints about Westinghouse, a major problem that led to the discovery that some groundwater pollution on the site had been known by the company for years but never reported to federal or state regulators.
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