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    Fish kill at SC nuclear site was an early warning sign. Then came spills, accidents

    August 1, 2022 - Sammy Fretwell, The State


      Dead fish floated in a small pond near a nuclear fuel factory one day in 1980, raising concerns about the Columbia plant’s danger to the surrounding environment.

      A cocktail of contaminants had been documented in groundwater, which seeps into creeks and ponds, and it appeared that one of these pollutants — ammonia — had contributed to the fish kill in Gator Pond, according to environmental studies.

      It was a disturbing discovery that foreshadowed a variety of environmental and safety troubles the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant would deal with over the next 40 years.

      Since 1980, more than 40 environmental and safety problems have been tied to the Westinghouse plant, ranging from groundwater pollution to nuclear safety violations that endangered plant workers, according to a review of news accounts and public records by The State.

      Despite those issues, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a final environmental study Friday that said the future environmental impact of the plant would be small to moderate. The NRC recommended a new license for the plant to operate for an additional 40 years, a decision that greases the skids for final license approval this fall.

      John Grego, who is with the Friends of Congaree Swamp organization that supports Congaree National Park, said the fuel factory has had too many troubles of all kinds through the years.

      “The variety of problems is what troubles me, that this occurred in so many aspects of their culture,’’ Grego said. “It just seems to suggest systemic problems with the safety culture at Westinghouse. You had these long-standing problems that weren’t remediated, problems that weren’t reported.’’

      Some of the pollution tied to Westinghouse was not known to the public or government regulators for years, which has incensed some Lower Richland residents who live near the plant. Some residents of the predominantly African-American community have said they were left out of the loop for too long.

      Only in recent years, when a flurry of safety issues at the plant arose, did many people learn about past pollution. A key community concern is whether water pollution from the plant could one-day contaminate their drinking water wells.

      State regulators said mechanisms are now in place to hold Westinghouse more accountable, while resolving past environmental problems. The company struck a binding agreement with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control in 2019 to investigate and clean up pollution on the property. The company also is nearing completion of an investigative study of the site’s environmental problems, according to a statement Friday from DHEC.

      Meanwhile, Westinghouse spokeswoman Karen Gay listed an array of actions the company has taken on the more than 1,100-acre site in eastern Richland County. Records indicate that the company has not had any major troubles since 2019.

      Among the company’s actions are eliminating the use of tetrachloroethylene, a toxic chemical also known as PCE; removing out-of-service equipment; removing 62 containers that had at one time stored radioactive materials; and converting a lagoon into a grassy field to eliminate risks to soil and water. Westinghouse has improved operations in the plant to help avoid mishaps like those that have occurred in the past, she said.

      Gay said the company also has done a health and ecological risk assessment, and she noted that DHEC and three independent environmental firms say the surrounding area and workers are safe.

      “There are no offsite environmental impacts, nor is there a danger to employees or to the public health and safety,’’ she said in an email.

      Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler was skeptical.

      Stangler said he is not confident Westinghouse will improve the operation, despite recent assurances and agreements with state regulators to clean up and do a better job. The plant is located near the Congaree River.

      “They have a long track record of problems at that facility that would raise anyone’s eyebrows,’’ Stangler said. “It’s concerning if you have an interest in the environment; it’s concerning if you are someone who lives in the surrounding area. Time after time we have seen that they haven’t followed the rules, and they have had problems.’’

      The 53-year-old Westinghouse plant, located on a lonely stretch of Bluff Road just a few miles from Congaree National Park, is a major Columbia employer with about 1,000 workers. The factory makes fuel rods for atomic power plants, producing material that supplies about 10 percent of the nation’s electrical power. Nuclear material at the site includes low-enriched uranium. The plant converts uranium hexafluoride to uranium dioxide.

      Troubles at Westinghouse began in the 1970s, not long after the plant opened, when a wastewater pond leaked. But problems continued steadily after the 1980 fish kill, sometimes little known to the public.

      After the company reported a leak of uranium through a hole in the plant floor in 2018, federal and state regulators learned that the company had spilled toxins into the ground in 2008 and in 2011 without telling them or the public. The company said it was not required to report the spills.

      Contaminants such as fluoride, uranium, solvents and ammonia have been found in groundwater on the Westinghouse site. Technetium, a nuclear pollutant, also has been discovered on the soggy property, but no one has yet pinpointed the cause of the pollution.

      Some of the biggest troubles at Westinghouse have revolved around nuclear safety inside the plant. The company has run into trouble through the years for failing to make sure nuclear materials it manages didn’t trigger small bursts of radiation, which can endanger workers.

      Records show the NRC has expressed concerns multiple times with Westinghouse over the issue, known as criticality safety.

      In 1993, the NRC fined Westinghouse $18,750 for what it said was a failure to do a criticality safety analysis and testing. In 1998, the agency levied another fine of $13,750 after noting a loss of criticality control and a “significant lack of attention.’’ In 2000, the NRC said the company had “willfully violated criticality safety procedures.’’

      By 2004, the company’s safety issues had caught the attention of then regional-NRC administrator Luis Reyes.

      “Your past efforts to improve procedure compliance and implement criticality safety controls were not fully effective,’’ Reyes said in a letter to Westinghouse.

      Criticality safety, however, continued to be an issue. Buildups of uranium in an incinerator in 2004 and in an air pollution control device in 2016 also arose, records show. The 2004 discovery resulted in a $24,000 fine by the NRC against Westinghouse. The company at the time pledged to do better.

      Government records also show that people working at the plant falsified records, including as recently as 2009. In some cases, employees have been injured or threatened by nuclear accidents. A radioactive leak in 1994 exposed 55 workers, temporarily shutting down the fuel factory, according to a news report. In 2012, an employee was exposed to a uranium-containing solution and sent to the hospital, sparking an internal investigation. In 2017, a company worker was exposed to a chemical solution toxic enough to cause burns.

      News accounts and government records also show that Westinghouse has, at times, had trouble handling and keeping track of nuclear material it is responsible for. In one 1997 case, the company lost two low-enriched fuel rods, prompting the NRC to say problems at the plant “are indicative of inadequate management attention.’’

      The company received a $6,000 federal fine in 1983 after shipping flammable waste material to the Barnwell County low-level radioactive waste landfill. The material caught fire at the Barnwell dump.

      Westinghouse: A detailed history of troubles

      Here’s a look at some of the problems at the Westinghouse Plant, a facility just up the road from Congaree National Park. The information was compiled from reports from The State, The Columbia Record, the Greenville News, and wire services, as well Nuclear Regulatory Commission records and other government reports.

      1980: State regulators learn of a fish kill near the Westinghouse wastewater plant. They found elevated levels of fluoride and ammonia-nitrogen in groundwater and surface water. It was later determined that the pollution came from the plant wastewater area.

      1980: Twenty plant workers evacuated from Westinghouse after a small leak of uranium hexafluoride gas.

      1982: Westinghouse unable to find 9.5 pounds of slightly enriched uranium, according to an NRC report.

      1983: State regulators fine Westinghouse $6,000 for illegally shipping flammable material that caused a fire at Barnwell County’s low-level nuclear waste dump.

      1988: Radioactivity found in monitoring wells is thought to have come from prior leaks of industrial wastewater. Low concentrations of Uranium 235, 234 and 238 found.

      1989: EPA investigators find an array of pollutants in groundwater at the Westinghouse site, some higher than safe drinking water levels. Vinyl Chloride and TCE, both of which can cause cancer, were found to exceed the drinking water standard.

      1989: Twenty five dead deer discovered at the Westinghouse property, some of them in an area where wastewater was being discharged near the Congaree River. The deer reportedly died from nitrate poisoning, but public records reviewed by The State do not show an exact cause.

      1992: Trichloroethene (TCE), cis-1,2-dichloroethene (CIS 1,2 DCE) and tetrachloroethene (PCE), are detected at amounts above the federal maximum contaminant level for safe drinking water. The high levels were found near the plant’s oil house.

      1993: NRC fines Westinghouse $18,750 after alleging that the company failed to perform a criticality safety analysis and failed to conduct safety tests.

      1994: Radioactive leak exposes 55 workers to uranium hexafluoride and shuts down the Westinghouse plant.

      1997: The plant loses two low-enriched fuel rods. The NRC says five violations of NRC requirements occurred. Safety was not compromised, but problems “are indicative of inadequate management attention.’’

      1998: Company fined $13,750 after NRC notes the “loss of criticality control,’’ a problem that could have led to an accident. The agency says a problem had gone uncorrected.

      2000: NRC hits Westinghouse with a violation notice because an operator “willfully violated criticality safety procedures when preparing to mix a batch of powder.’’

      2000: Uranyl nitrate spills at the Westinghouse plant, causing a cleanup. When the cleanup began, workers found the spill was worse than originally thought.

      2001: NRC hits Westinghouse with a violation for transporting 3 cylinders of licensed material with elevated radiation levels.

      2001: Westinghouse fails to follow criticality safety rules at a uranium recovery area dissolver elevator, violation notice says. Containers were not stacked far enough apart, reducing safety. Westinghouse didn’t do enough to fix the problem.

      2001: NRC issues a violation notice to Westinghouse after raising concerns about criticality safety, including failing to keep uranium powder mixing hoods properly separated.

      2001: NRC hits Westinghouse with violation after criticality safety controls failed to work on the ammonium diurnate process lines.

      2002: NRC letter tells Westinghouse that its criticality safety control efforts need improvement. NRC Regional Administrator Luis Reyes says the last two safety reviews have urged improvement for criticality safety. Letter notes concern about nuclear transportation program.

      2002: NRC notice of investigation says a contractor for Westinghouse falsified records about the receipt and processing of materials. That resulted in a small amount of nuclear material being improperly shipped to nuclear site in Tennessee.

      2004: NRC again raises concerns about criticality safety, the practice of making sure a nuclear chain reaction does not occur. Efforts to improve compliance with procedures and “implement criticality safety controls were not fully effective,’’ letter from regional administrator Luis Reyes says.

      2004: NRC letter hits Westinghouse with a $24,000 fine. The company failed to maintain criticality controls as required. Ash in the company’s incinerator exceeded concentration limits for uranium. The Level 2 violation is, at the time, the most serious ever noted at the plant.

      2008: Broken pipe spills radioactive material into the soil in the same area as a later 2011 leak, but Westinghouse doesn’t tell state or federal regulators for years.

      2008: The NRC sanctions Westinghouse for losing sixteen sample vials of uranium hexafluoride. The company didn’t properly document and control the transfer of the vials and failed to secure them from “unauthorized removal.’’

      2008: Westinghouse hit with a violation notice after a worker disabled an alarm and bypassed a safety significant interlock.

      2009: Westinghouse fires a contract foreman after federal regulators found that he had falsified records. Westinghouse also was cited by the NRC. The foreman certified that employees were trained in safety procedures, when they had not completed training.

      2009: Westinghouse loses 25 pounds of pellets that were to be used in making nuclear fuel rods. NRC downplays danger but says Westinghouse should have kept better track of the nuclear material.

      2010: NRC levies $17,500 fine against Westinghouse after uranium-bearing wastewater spilled inside the plant.

      2011: Uranium leaks into ground beneath the Westinghouse plant, but federal inspectors weren’t told about it for years. NRC officials said they only learned about the spill in 2017.

      2012: Worker exposed to uranium-containing acid and whisked to a hospital by emergency medical crews. The worker was treated for pain and released.

      2012: Westinghouse fails to follow through on a report to improve the facility so it could better withstand an earthquake, NRC says. Recommendations had been made nine years previously.

      2015: Three workers are injured when steam erupted from a wash tank. The workers are taken to a Columbia area hospital for treatment and later sent to the burn center in Augusta, which specializes in treating severe burns.

      2016: A buildup of uranium that could have led to a small burst of radiation forces Westinghouse to shut down part of the fuel plant and temporarily lay off 170 workers, about one-tenth of its work force at the plant. The uranium found in the scrubber area is nearly three times the legal limit.

      2017: Westinghouse worker exposed to a solution toxic enough to cause chemical burns when the solution sprayed him.

      2018: Uranium leaks into the ground through a hole in the Westinghouse plant floor. An acid solution had eaten into the floor. Soil was contaminated.

      2018. The NRC says Westinghouse allowed workers to walk across a protecting liner for years, which likely weakened the liner and contributed to a hole in the floor that allowed uranium solution to leak out.

      2019: Fire breaks out in a drum laden with mop heads, rags and other cleaning equipment.

      2019: State and federal authorities report that water had leaked through a rusty shipping container and onto barrels of uranium-tainted trash. Contaminants then leaked into the soil below the shipping container floor.

      2019: Westinghouse sends three workers to the hospital after they complained of an unusual taste in their mouths while doing maintenance on equipment that contains hydrofluoric acid.

      2019: Two contaminated barrels are shipped from the Westinghouse plant to Washington State after workers in South Carolina failed to properly examine the containers for signs of radioactive contamination.

      2020. The NRC issues violation against Westinghouse, this time after questions arose about nuclear safety. The issue centered on improper security of tamper seals, used to keep nuclear material from being stolen.

      2020. NRC reports finding 13 pinhole leaks in a protective liner.

      2020: South Carolina officials raise concerns about earthquakes at Westinghouse.

      Sources: NRC records and news reports from The State.

      ©2022 The State. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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