Nuclear leak stirs unease in Lower Richland community
Groundwater at Westinghouse’s nuclear fuel factory on Bluff Road is contaminated with unsafe levels of radioactive material from years-old leaks that state and federal regulators only learned about in the past year.
Recent tests found levels of radioactive uranium that exceed safe drinking-water standards at two test wells adjacent to the nuclear fuel-rod plant building southeast of Columbia, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said during a community meeting.
Thursday night’s meeting was held as part of Westinghouse’s application for a new 40-year license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate the Bluff Road plant.
The plant, located between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park, employs about 1,000 people. The 550,000-square-foot facility, one of only three of its kind in the country, makes nuclear fuel rods that are used to run commercial atomic power plants across the United States.
The pollution found in the two test wells resulted from leaks in 2008 and 2011 that occurred in a contaminated wastewater line, the NRC and Westinghouse said.
The company and federal officials said the uranium-contaminated groundwater is in the middle of the sprawling industrial plant site and has not trickled onto adjacent land. The pollution is thousands of feet away from the boundary of Westinghouse’s property, NRC officials said.
Westinghouse thinks the leaks “are fairly shallow, and they are working to better characterize the extent of that contamination,’’ the NRC’s Tom Vukovinsky said.
Westinghouse is working on a plan to clean up the pollution to prevent any spread of the uranium-tainted groundwater. The company is preparing a report for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, to be given to the agency this year, that is expected to address cleanup plans for the 2008 and 2011 leaks. Previously, Westinghouse told federal regulators it did not plan to clean up the 2011 pollution until it shuts down the factory site in 40 years.
Thursday night’s revelation of high uranium levels in two test wells follows news this year about other leaks and spills at the Westinghouse plant, a major employer in the Columbia area since opening in 1969.
The NRC did not learn about the 2011 leak until last year and, only recently, found out about the 2008 leak from the fuel rod plant. Westinghouse did not tell the agency at the time the leaks occurred because that was not required, the company and federal officials have said. The leaks occurred in the same area of the factory, three years apart.
The 2008 and 20111 leaks are not the only concern.
In July, Westinghouse told state and federal regulators it had discovered that a uranium solution leaked through a hole in the floor in another part of the plant this summer and contaminated the ground.
Unlike the 2008 and 2011 leaks, regulators say they haven’t found that the uranium that leaked this summer got through the ground and into the water table below. The company is cleaning up that leak by excavating nine feet of tainted soil, Westinghouse spokeswoman Courtney Boone said.
People living near the plant expressed worries Thursday about the safety of the facility. About 70 people attended Thursday’s meeting at a Garners Ferry Road conference center.
Residents are concerned groundwater pollution could affect the private wells from which they draw drinking water. They also worry about the possibility of a nuclear accident.
“In the blink of an eye, an accident could potentially have a major detrimental impact on our community,’’ Hopkins resident Karen Irick said, adding, “You guys have gotten me afraid, really afraid. Every time I turn around, there is something going on over there.’’
Many residents of Lower Richland — a rural area with a mixture of affluent hunt clubs. and poor and working-class neighborhoods — have said they don’t trust Westinghouse, recently forming a citizens group to monitor the company. They complain Westinghouse has not been visible in the community, keeping secret its operations and troubles.
Westinghouse’s Boone said the Bluff Road plant is being run properly. She added Westinghouse is working to better inform the community about plant operations.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say any polluted groundwater that does escape the Bluff Road site likely will flow toward the Congaree River, instead of the nearby Hopkins area, where many people live.
DHEC tests have not found pollution related to the nuclear site in private drinking water wells nearby.
Federal officials held Thursday’s meeting to gather information for an environmental study they are conducting of the nuclear fuel plant. The NRC completed a study of the nuclear fuel plant in June. However, federal officials re-opened that study after learning recently about spills and leaks at the plant.
The study will help the agency determine whether to grant Westinghouse a new 40-year license to operate the facility on Bluff Road.
Critics of the plant say Westinghouse should not get a 40-year operating license because of problems at the site. Some favor a shorter period for the license.