Burned nuclear worker, troubled history raise EPA concern over SC atomic fuel plant

·6 min read

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, citing a history of troubles at Columbia’s nuclear fuel plant, says federal regulators should resolve questions about radioactive pollution at the factory before giving it permission to operate another four decades.

In a recent letter to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the EPA expressed multiple concerns about the Westinghouse plant, including the threat of radioactive material washing off the property and how air pollution might have affected the area.

The Nov. 18 letter, released this week, said the EPA is worried about “incidents and violations’’ during the past 15 years at Westinghouse, including an accident in August in which a plant worker suffered chemical burns and was contaminated with radioactive material.

“We have environmental concerns regarding water resources, air quality, climate, environmental justice and tribal issues that should be addressed’’ in a final environmental study, as well as a pending safety evaluation, the agency’s Mark Fite wrote in the letter to the NRC.

Both the environmental and safety studies Fite referred to are to be completed prior to the NRC deciding on a new license for Westinghouse. A final decision on whether to grant the license is expected next June, the NRC says.

The EPA joins at least three other government agencies that have questioned whether a draft environmental study by the NRC is adequate.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources also have written letters registering their discomfort with parts of the draft environmental study.

Among other things, the Interior Department wrote a letter questioning whether groundwater pollution at Westinghouse could eventually spread to Congaree National Park, just a few miles down the road.

The DNR said the draft environmental study did not look closely enough at how water pollution on the property would affect frogs and snakes, nor did the environmental report mention an array of species that could be affected. DHEC said the NRC report had multiple technical inaccuracies.

According to the NRC, it received a total of 65 pieces of correspondence about the environmental study, including letters from government agencies.

The draft NRC study, formally called an Environmental Impact Statement, said that although the Westinghouse fuel plant would have an effect on the environment if the license is approved, the impacts would not be substantial enough to warrant denying the license. The draft NRC study recommended a 40-year-license be issued.

While the decision to grant the license is ultimately the NRC’s, the chorus of complaints by government environmental agencies could prompt the nuclear agency to consider giving Westinghouse less than 40 years to operate its plant if a new permit is granted.

The EPA’s letter is noteworthy because the department is the nation’s primary environmental regulatory agency, overseeing programs intended to protect the air, land and water from excessive pollution.

Built in 1969, the Westinghouse plant makes fuel rods for the nation’s commercial atomic power plants. The factory is one of only a handful in the country and is considered important to the generation of nuclear power, as well as the local economy. It employs more than 1,000 workers in the Columbia area.

But it has been beset with accidents and environmental problems, including groundwater contamination beneath the site on Bluff Road between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park. Some of the pollution went unreported for years.

Recent problems include a buildup of radioactive uranium in an air pollution control device, leaking shipping containers and a leak of uranium through the plant’s floor.

Neighbors and nuclear safety activists say those and other problems are good reasons for the license period to be shortened to 10 or 20 years, instead of 40 years, if the NRC decides to grant a new permit for Westinghouse.

Many worry that tainted groundwater will pollute wells with dangerous radioactive and hazardous chemicals that could make them sick, even though the company says pollution is contained on the site. Among pollutants in groundwater at the plant are radioactive materials and nitrate, a material toxic to babies who drink formula made from polluted water.

Lower Richland residents worry about how groundwater pollution from a nearby Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory will affect their drinking water. Michael Daugherty is pictured in front of the well house at his home on Old Bluff Road. State regulators say wells are not in danger, but critics are skeptical.
Lower Richland residents worry about how groundwater pollution from a nearby Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory will affect their drinking water. Michael Daugherty is pictured in front of the well house at his home on Old Bluff Road. State regulators say wells are not in danger, but critics are skeptical.

The Nov. 18 EPA letter listed multiple issues that the agency says need further assessment. Those include “a history of non-compliance’’ associated with discharges to rivers and creeks at the Westinghouse factory.

One EPA concern that may be of particular interest to people living near the plant says there has been no risk assessment to show how contamination might affect “downstream and surrounding populations.’’

Uranium and Technetium 99, two radioactive materials, should not be discharged to the Congaree River from a pipe or from water washing out of a wastewater treatment plant during storms, the EPA said. Uranium can cause kidney damage. Technetium 99 can increase a person’s chances of cancer.

The NRC’s environmental study revealed “uncertainty’’ about the source and extent of water pollution and how contaminants might move off the site, the EPA letter said. The environmental study also did not fully show the extent of polluted groundwater, nor did it adequately address the overall impact of discharges to creeks and rivers, the letter said.

“The EPA recommends that uncertainties and issues associated with the migration pathways of radioactive materials be resolved prior to the issuance of any new license, and that SC DHEC concur on the findings,’’ according to Fite’s letter.

Fite’s letter to the NRC questioned how the earth’s changing climate could intensify rains and create more polluted runoff from the Westinghouse site, as is believed to have occurred during a massive October 2015 flood that swamped Columbia.

It recommended that the final environmental study and pending safety evaluation of a new 40-year license provide a more detailed look at climate-related threats. It says the closer look should examine “severe weather events that could potentially impact the local and downstream communities.’’

Air pollution from the plant also needs examination to estimate the total impacts on the environment and local communities, the letter said.

Aside from those concerns, the EPA recommends a more in-depth archaeological survey of historical Native American cemeteries and asks how Westinghouse is interacting with nearby minority and disadvantaged communities.

A crowd of about 100 people learned Thursday night that federal officials will reopen a review of the Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory in the wake of news about leaks at the facility near Columbia.
A crowd of about 100 people learned Thursday night that federal officials will reopen a review of the Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory in the wake of news about leaks at the facility near Columbia.

Spokespeople for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Westinghouse said some of the issues raised by the EPA have been addressed.

Westinghouse spokeswoman Karen Gay said, for instance, the potential effects of flooding have been “thoroughly evaluated” in a Columbia fuel factory safety program and analysis, a requirement of the NRC.

In regard to questions about Technetium 99 and uranium discharges to the Congaree River, Gay said discharges are monitored and in compliance with state and federal permits.

“Westinghouse remains dedicated to conducting our operations in a safe and environmentally sound, socially responsible manner,’’ she said in an email.

Asked by The State about the EPA’s reference to a burned worker, Gay said the worker received medical attention at the site and, to be cautious, Westinghouse had the person obtain off-site medical treatment. Gay said the employee returned to work.

The NRC said the accident occurred in August and is part of an ongoing review by the nuclear agency. An inspection report will be issued by Jan. 31, NRC spokesman Dave Gasperson said.

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