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The atomic fuel plant up the road: Leak sparks concerns about nuclear neighbor via The State

HOPKINS, SC

Pollution tied to infant deaths and cancer in adults has shown up for decades in the groundwater beneath a nuclear fuel factory less than two miles from Michael Daugherty’s house.

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Now, in the aftermath of a recent uranium leak at the plant, Daugherty wants to know whether the factory he has driven by for decades is a threat to his community. He’s among multiple Lower Richland residents uneasy about the safety of the Westinghouse facility, an expansive plant that makes nuclear fuel rods for reactors that produce electricity.

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The uranium leak, to be discussed at a community meeting Monday night in Hopkins, occurred in June. It was reported to state and federal authorities on July 12, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Corrosive acid from a processing area ate a three-inch-wide hole in the plant’s floor, allowing a uranium-acid solution to contaminate soil beneath the Westinghouse plant, regulators said. Uranium levels more than 1,000 times higher than normal were found in the dirt under the leak, sparking questions about whether the contaminants would get into the area’s shallow water table and, from there, into drinking wells.

State regulators say the groundwater has not been affected by the leak and drinking water from wells is safe for area residents. Regulators base those conclusions on tests from a single well, located 188 feet from the leak site. They also say the general direction of groundwater in the area is away from residents’ wells.

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Since 1993, Westinghouse has been cited at least 16 times over atomic safety concerns by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

One of the most serious incidents occurred in the 1990s, when uranium built up in a furnace, risking the possibility of a small explosion. In 2016, the NRC again cited Westinghouse over a uranium buildup, this time in an air scrubber, where it could have caused a radiation burst or small explosion. In neither case was the general public at risk, according to the NRC, but the agency said workers could have been seriously injured.

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The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has had little to say about the leak since it was first reported publicly two weeks ago. But Taylor said the federal agency should be checking to see why a containment system didn’t keep acid from eating through the plant’s floor.

Westinghouse says the incident occurred in the containment area of an acid-spiking station. A small hole was found in a synthetic liner that rested atop a concrete floor, the company and DHEC say. Underneath the liner, there also was a coating on the concrete. The liner and coating should have protected the concrete from any dripping acid, Taylor said. But they didn’t, DHEC officials said.

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Community meeting Monday night

A public meeting about the Westinghouse leak is scheduled for Monday night at 6:30. It will be held at the Hopkins Park Adult Activity Center, 144 Hopkins Road in Hopkins. Officials with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will be there.

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