South Carolina

Nuclear workers hospitalized; Columbia plant runs afoul of safety rules - again

A Columbia nuclear fuel factory with a history of leaks, spills and other mishaps has again run into trouble, this time after three workers went to the hospital and an inspection found the plant didn’t have proper safety equipment.

The Westinghouse nuclear plant discovered last week that it had a device in place that was not adequate to prevent uranium from leaking into chemical supply drums at the site, federal records show.

That’s potentially significant because the drums were in a “non-favorable’’ position, which under certain circumstances could increase chances of a radiation burst inside the 1,000-employee plant.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is looking into the matter, reported by Westinghouse to the agency Oct. 16. Westinghouse shut down part of the plant where the improper equipment was found, a spokesman for the NRC said this week.

“There’s no question they can do better,’’ NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said. “We will continue to aggressively inspect them and take action as necessary.’’

Ledford said federal investigators will follow up with a routine inspection of the Bluff Road plant in early December, noting that the agency did not see the equipment issue as posing an imminent danger since the problem has been identified.

Meanwhile, the NRC has become aware of a separate issue that surfaced Oct. 14, two days before the improper equipment problem arose.

That day, three workers who were cleaning equipment complained of a “an unusual taste in their mouths,’’ prompting Westinghouse to send them to the hospital. The workers were kept overnight, before they were released. One of the employees received treatment, federal records show.

The workers were conducting maintenance on equipment that uses hydrofluoric acid, a chemical that can irritate the lungs if inhaled or even kill someone if ingested. Tests did not find unsafe levels of hydrofluoric acid in the air, according to a federal incident report.

“Access to the area is controlled, and the equipment remains shutdown pending completion of maintenance activities and appropriate testing before return to operation,’’ the federal incident report said. “There were no health or safety consequences to the public or the environment, and there was no radioactive material involved.’’

Still, the S.C. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was notified about the workers because one received medical treatment, records show. The agency, which investigates worker safety issues, said Monday it is evaluating the report to determine whether to launch an investigation.

Ledford deferred questions about the workers to Westinghouse. The workers’ names were not available.

Westinghouse said Monday it has resolved the equipment issue and was monitoring the air for hydrofluoric acid. The company said it has relayed its efforts to improve to people who live in eastern Richland County, where neighbors have been critical of Westinghouse for what they say is a historic lack of transparency.

“In both of these instances, we communicated with members of the community following the incidents to keep them apprised,’’ spokeswoman Sarah Casella said in an email Monday.

Tom Clements, a nuclear safety watchdog who heads Savannah River Site Watch, said the incidents at Westinghouse add to a pattern of problems at the Richland County facility. While some of the problems have been small, people still should pay attention, he said.

“All this stuff just keeps going on,’’ Clements said. “I would not be surprised if, with the way the facility is being run, they don’t have a major accident we should all be concerned about.’’

The nuclear fuel factory, one of only three of its kind in the country, has a long history of incidents, including events in which some workers were exposed to radiation or injured. But concerns have intensified in recent years among people who live in eastern Richland County, near the plant.

Since 2016, the facility has run afoul of federal regulators for allowing uranium to build up in an air pollution control device, leaking uranium through a hole in the plant floor and failing to notify authorities of historic leaks on the property. This past summer, federal officials learned that water had dripped through a rusty shipping container onto a barrel of nuclear waste, causing a leak into the ground. Officials also learned about a small fire this summer that erupted in a container that held nuclear material.

Groundwater beneath the site is polluted with an array of toxins, including nitrate, solvents and nuclear materials, dating as far back as the 1980s. Neighbors near the plant are leery, with some saying they don’t trust Westinghouse to safeguard the environment. The company has pledged to do better.

Westinghouse’s plant supplies fuel rods for atomic power plants across the country. Located between Interstate 77 and Congaree National Park, the 550,000-square-foot factory has been a key part of the Columbia economy since opening in 1969. The plant employs about 1,000 people. Operators are now seeking to renew a federal license, as well as state discharge permits.

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Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.