Nuclear workers hospitalized; Columbia plant runs afoul of safety rules – again via The State


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.


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.


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.’’


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.

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