Inspectors at the Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory near Columbia recently found 13 small leaks in a protective liner that is supposed to keep pollution from dripping into soil and groundwater below the plant.
Now, the company plans to check a concrete floor beneath the liner, as well as soil below the plant, for signs of contamination that could have resulted from the tears, which were characterized in a federal inspection report as ‘’pinhole leaks.’’ The pinhole leaks, discovered by Westinghouse late in 2019, may have formed after company employees walked across the liner and weakened it, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
If that’s true, it would mark the second time in two years that Westinghouse has run into trouble over employees walking across protective liners.
Foot traffic weakened a liner in another part of the plant that contributed to a 2018 leak of uranium solution through the plant’s floor, according to the NRC. The 2018 leak, which occurred near a spiking station that mixes solutions, contaminated soil, prompting an outcry from community residents about operating practices at Westinghouse.
Since the leak of uranium solution, state and federal agencies have revealed the existence of previously unreported leaks at the plant. Troubles at the plant have sparked public meetings in eastern Richland County, where many neighbors have criticized Westinghouse for not keeping them informed.
The Westinghouse plant converts uranium hexafluoride into uranium dioxide to make nuclear fuel assemblies for atomic power plants. Chemicals used in the process can be hazardous if people are exposed to substantial amounts. Among the threats are kidney and liver damage. Uranium is a radioactive material that also can increase a person’s risks of cancer.
Paul Threatt, an area resident and former Westinghouse employee, said he’s glad the company is looking for such problems. Westinghouse reported the pinhole leaks to the NRC after an inspection. The pinholes had not showed up in inspections before, the NRC says.
“If they caught this in time, it’s not such a big deal,’’ said Threatt, a member of a citizens group monitoring the Westinghouse plant. “The other (liner issue from 2018) had been ignored for quite a while and it ate through the concrete and allowed uranyl nitrate to escape into the ground.’’
The NRC inspection report, completed in January, said Westinghouse was supposed to ensure that walking pads were across the liner to prevent problems, but “this proved to be ineffective.’’ The report said “13 pinhole leaks were found in the liner, indicating that the liner had been walked on.’’ The problems, discovered Dec. 9, occurred in a section of the plant with a second spiking station, similar to the spiking station where the leak was found in 2018.
Tom Clements, a nuclear safety watchdog and one of the plant’s most vocal critics, said the latest problem is nothing to ignore. Walking on the liner contributed to the 2018 leak, and now the company has found holes from employees walking on another section of the liner, he said.
“It reveals they have not learned any lessons from the other incident,’’ Clements said.
Westinghouse had little to say about the pinhole leaks, referring to comments in the recent inspection report. The company noted that it found the leaks and told federal regulators. The company said it is replacing the spiking station where the pinhole leaks were found.
“Appropriate corrective actions have been taken for the causes of this issue,’’ spokeswoman Courtney Boone said in an email Friday.
Laura Renwick, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said her agency was aware of damage to the liner. The agency said Westinghouse will submit a testing plan to DHEC in the next month as it investigates “the area under the spiking station.’’ She did not elaborate but said the public is not in danger because the area in question is inside the building.
Like the NRC, DHEC regulates the Westinghouse plant.
Westinghouse’s Bluff Road fuel plant, a major employer with more than 1,000 workers, is one of only three like it in the country. Established in 1969 between Columbia and what today is Congaree National Park, the factory makes fuel rods for the nation’s atomic power plants.
The company has a decades long history of groundwater contamination. Regulators say the pollution is contained on the site, and if tainted water does trickle off the property, it won’t flow toward homes in the Hopkins area that rely on wells for drinking water. Groundwater problems include contamination from fluoride, solvents and nitrate. Concerns have risen recently upon the revelation of previously unknown leaks at the plant in 2008 and 2011. Westinghouse knew about the leaks but did not inform regulators for years.
Westinghouse also has had multiple problems in the past five years complying with federal nuclear standards. In addition to the 2018 uranium leak, the company also had troubles in 2016 when inspectors found that uranium had built up in an air pollution control device, creating a potentially dangerous situation for workers. Last year, the company dealt with a small fire in a bin containing nuclear plant refuse, as well as uranium-tainted water leaking from a rusty shipping container.