EPA worried about SC nuclear fuel plant, urges more study


One of the country’s only nuclear fuel plants is located in eastern Richland County. The Westinghouse plant manufactures fuel rods for commercial atomic power reactors.

The US Environmental Protection Agency, citing a history of problems at a nuclear fuel plant in Columbia, says federal regulators must resolve questions about radioactive contamination at the plant before it is given permission to operate for another four decades.

In a recent letter to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency expressed multiple concerns about the Westinghouse plant, including the threat of radioactive material being washed off the property and how air pollution could affect the area.

The November 18 letter, released this week, said the EPA had been concerned about “accidents and abuses” over the past 15 years at Westinghouse, including an incident in August in which a factory worker suffered chemical burns and contamination with radioactive materials.

“We have environmental concerns regarding water resources, air quality, climate, environmental justice, and tribal issues that need to be addressed” in a final environmental study, as well as a pending safety assessment, Mark Feet of the agency wrote in the letter to the NRC. .

Both the environment and safety studies referred to in Fite must be completed before the NRC can make a decision on a new Westinghouse license. A final decision on granting the license is expected next June, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The Environmental Protection Agency joins at least three other government agencies who have questioned whether the draft environmental study conducted by the NRC was sufficient.

The US Department of the Interior and the Supreme Committee’s Department of Health and Environmental Oversight and Natural Resources Management have also written letters recording their discomfort with parts of the draft environmental study.

Among other things, the Home Office is wondering if contamination of the Westinghouse’s groundwater could eventually spread to Congaree National Park, just a few miles down the road.

DNR said the draft environmental study did not look closely enough at how water pollution on the property affects frogs and snakes, and the environmental report did not mention the range of species that could be affected. DHEC said the NRC report had multiple technical errors.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, it has received a total of 65 letters about the environmental study, including letters from government agencies.

The draft NRC study, officially called the Environmental Impact Statement, said that although the Westinghouse gas station would have an impact on the environment if the license was approved, the impacts would not be significant enough to justify denying the license. The NRC’s draft study recommended a 40-year license.

While the decision to grant the license is ultimately that of the NRC, the chorus of complaints from government environmental agencies may prompt the nuclear agency to consider giving Westinghouse under 40 to operate its plant if a new permit is granted.

The EPA’s rhetoric is noteworthy because the administration is the nation’s primary environmental regulatory agency, and it oversees programs aimed at protecting air, land, and water from excessive pollution.

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

But it has been hit by accidents and environmental problems, including groundwater contamination under the site on Bluff Road between Highway 77 and Konjari National Park. Some pollution has gone unreported for years.

Recent problems include a buildup of radioactive uranium in the air pollution control device, leaking shipping containers and uranium leakage through the factory floor.

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

Many worry that contaminated groundwater will contaminate wells with dangerous and radioactive chemicals that could make them sick, although the company says the contamination is on-site. Among the contaminants in the plant’s groundwater are radioactive materials and nitrates, which are toxic to children who drink formula made from polluted water.

LR Well, Daugherty3.jpg
Residents of Lower Richland are concerned about the impact of groundwater contamination from the nearby nuclear fuel plant at Westinghouse on their drinking water. Michael Dougherty was photographed in front of the well house in his home on Old Bluff Road. State regulators say the wells are not in danger, but critics are skeptical. Country / Sami Fretwell

The EPA’s November 18 letter listed several issues that the agency says need further evaluation. They include “history of non-compliance” associated with discharges into rivers and streams at the Westinghouse plant.

One EPA concern that may be of particular interest to people who live near the plant says that there has been no risk assessment to show how the pollution could affect “downstream and surrounding populations.”

The EPA said uranium and technetium-99, both radioactive materials, should not be discharged into the Konjar River from a pipe or from water flowing from a sewage treatment plant during storms. Uranium can cause kidney damage. Technetium 99 can increase a person’s chances of developing cancer.

The environmental study by the Norwegian Refugee Council revealed “uncertainty” about the source and extent of the water’s pollution and how the pollutants migrated from the site, the EPA letter said. The letter said the environmental study did not fully show the extent of groundwater pollution, nor did it adequately address the overall impact of discharges into streams and rivers.

According to Fite’s letter, “EPA recommends that the uncertainties and issues associated with radioactive material migration pathways be resolved before any new license is issued, and that SC DHEC agree to the findings.”

Fite’s letter to the NRC questioned how changing Earth’s climate could intensify rainfall and create more polluted runoff from the Westinghouse site, as is believed to have occurred during a massive flood in October 2015 that swept through Colombia.

It recommended that the final environmental study and safety assessment pending for a new 40-year license provide a more detailed look at climate-related threats. A closer look, she says, should examine “extreme weather events that can affect local and downstream communities.”

The letter said air pollution from the station also needs to be examined to estimate the overall impacts on the environment and local communities.

Regardless of these concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends a more in-depth archaeological survey of historic Native American cemeteries and asks how Westinghouse interacted with neighboring minorities and disadvantaged communities.

Nuclear Pictures .JPG
A crowd of about 100 learned Thursday night that federal officials would reopen an audit of the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant following news of leaks at the facility near Columbia. Country / Sami Fretwell

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

Westinghouse spokeswoman Karen Gay, for example, said the potential impacts of the flooding have been “carefully assessed” in the Columbia Fuel Plant Safety and Analysis Program, a requirement of the NRC.

Regarding questions about Technetium 99 and uranium discharges into the Congaree River, Jay said the discharges are being monitored and in accordance with state and federal licenses.

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

Asked by the State Department about the EPA’s reference to a burnt worker, Gaye said the worker received on-site medical care and, to be careful, Westinghouse asked the person to get medical treatment off-site. Jay said the employee is back at work.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said the accident occurred in August and was part of an ongoing review by the nuclear agency. Council spokesman Dave Jasper said the inspection report would be issued by January 31.

This story was originally published December 3, 2021 8:51 a.m.

Sammy Fritwell has covered Environmental Rhythm for the State since 1995. He writes on a range of issues, including wildlife, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste, and coastal development. He has received numerous awards, including Journalist of the Year by the SC Press Association in 2017. Fritwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him on 803771 8537.
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