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Leak-plagued nuclear plant gets blessing of federal safety regulators, despite concerns via The State

BY SAMMY FRETWELL

Despite a five-decade history of leaks and spills at the Westinghouse atomic fuel factory near Columbia, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is downplaying the possibility of major environmental damage at the site over the next 40 years.

But in releasing a study of the plant’s impact on the environment, the federal oversight agency drew withering criticism for not considering how past operating practices might foreshadow future factory operations.

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The NRC’s environmental assessment is significant because it will help the agency decide whether to issue a 40-year license so the plant can continue operating. Federal regulators say the plant will have some impact on the environment, but they don’t think the damage will be substantial because many of Westinghouse’s past problems are being addressed. 

The report said the NRC determined that “there could be noticeable impacts to the soil, surface water and groundwater; however, the impacts will be adequately monitored and mitigated. Therefore, the NRC’s evaluation preliminarily concludes that continued operations for an additional 40 years would not have a significant impact on the environment.’’

Located on Bluff Road between Columbia and Congaree National Park, the Westinghouse fuel factory began to take a toll on the environment not long after opening in 1969, records show.
Impacts to the environment date to the early 1970s, when ammonia and fluoride spilled, federal records show. The factory also is blamed for a fish kill in 1980 and for allowing toxic nitrates to seep into groundwater in the 1980s.

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It was not known this week when the NRC will decide on a new license, but the existing license doesn’t expire until 2027, records show. The NRC will hold a public meeting Nov. 14 at 5:30 p.m. in the Medallion Conference Center, 7309 Garners Ferry Road, to discuss the proposed license renewal and environmental report. Westinghouse officials are expected to attend.

The NRC environmental assessment notes that Westinghouse will monitor dozens of new wells to get a better handle on pollution at the site. The company also has a binding agreement with DHEC to study and contain contamination.

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“For the renewed license, (Westinghouse’s) monitoring program is substantially different from its current program due to groundwater contamination,’’ the NRC report said. The company will “sample 59 groundwater wells and analyze for uranium and TC-99.’’

Even so, Westinghouse says it has no plans to clean up pollution under buildings at the plant site until it shuts down the fuel factory, which would be in 40 years if the new license is approved. DHEC officials had no immediate comment on the federal environmental assessment, except to say the agency is studying it and will provide comments on the draft.

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The 2019 updated study, while including some of the same conclusions, took a look at those leaks.

Among the leaks examined in the 2019 report was a uranium spill through a hole in the floor of the plant in the summer of 2018, as well as the discovery that leaks had also occurred in 2008 and 2011 but had not been reported by Westinghouse to the NRC. The reporting wasn’t required, but federal officials said Westinghouse should have flagged the problems to the agency.

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