Nuclear regulators are investigating why Westinghouse Electric Co. ended up with three times the safe amount of uranium stuck inside a scrubber at its nuclear fuel factory in Columbia, S.C., and why it took the company more than a month to notify regulators when the situation should have been reported within 24 hours.
When the Cranberry-based company did contact the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in mid-July, federal regulators sent out a team to investigate, and Westinghouse shut down that portion of the plant. The NRC is still piecing together what happened and might be finished with its investigation in several weeks, said spokesman Roger Hannah.
A Potentially Serious Incident
Federal regulators have deemed this incident serious enough that it could have resulted in a criticality — a nuclear term for when conditions are right for a nuclear reaction.
“The way a chain reaction occurs is you have to enough material, close enough together, in a particular configuration” along with other conditions such as moisture and pressure that set events in motion, said Mr. Hannah at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
In a nuclear power plant, those conditions are desired and meticulously maintained.
“In a fuel facility, you don’t want that to happen,” he said. There, nuclear criticality safety professionals work to ensure such conditions don’t align.
That’s why there are safety limits on the amount of uranium that can accumulate in a particular component before a criticality event is considered possible.
Mr. Hannah said the federal investigation is focused on human performance — how Westinghouse established safety protocols and how it trained its employees to follow them.
“We will look at past actions,” he said. “If they had had something similar, should they have learned [from it]?”