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Federal safety inspectors didn’t know about nuclear leak for years via The State

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says its safety inspectors did not know for six years that uranium had leaked from an atomic fuel factory on Bluff Road, a sprawling industrial plant under scrutiny for past operating practices.

The leaking uranium, discovered by plant owner Westinghouse in 2011, was unknown to NRC inspectors until the fall of 2017, when they ran across information about the accident while preparing a special environmental study on the plant, the agency told The State newspaper.

Westinghouse, under fire over leaks and spills at the site, said it was not required to tell the NRC about the uranium leak discovered in 2011.

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Westinghouse’s Bluff Road plant plays an important role in the nation’s production of atomic energy. The expansive plant is one of only three of its kind that makes fuel for the nation’s approximately 100 nuclear power plants. The 49-year-old facility, located between Columbia and Congaree National Park, employs about 1,000 people. It is nestled on a 1,200-acre site near a smattering of homes and hunt clubs.

The company, however, has a history of run-ins with the NRC over safety issues, including a 2016 buildup of uranium that threatened to cause a small nuclear explosion. Groundwater beneath the plant has been polluted with a variety of contaminants since the early 1980s, records show. Overall, contamination from the plant has not tainted groundwater or creeks in the area, according to DHEC.

Uranium that reportedly leaked through a buried pipe in 2011 is the second issue involving the radioactive material to surface this summer at Westinghouse. In July, the NRC reported that uranium had drained through a three-inch-hole in the plant’s floor this year, contaminating soil below the facility with high levels of the radioactive material.

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They are particularly upset that the two agencies charged with protecting health and safety were unaware for years about the 2011 leak of uranium, which trickled from the pipe and into soil. Lower Richland residents worry that pollution from the pipe leak could contaminate wells they rely on for drinking water, even though regulators say there is no public threat.

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In a June 2018 environmental assessment on whether to grant a new 40-year license to operate the plant, the NRC said the polluted soil threatened to eventually taint groundwater, creeks and ponds nearby. The NRC said the agency has in recent years begun to look more carefully at soil pollution at older nuclear sites.

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