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Holes found in protective liner at SC nuclear fuel factory. Should you worry? via The State

BY SAMMY FRETWELL

Inspectors at the Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory near Columbia recently found 13 small leaks in a protective liner that is supposed to keep pollution from dripping into soil and groundwater below the plant.

Now, the company plans to check a concrete floor beneath the liner, as well as soil below the plant, for signs of contamination that could have resulted from the tears, which were characterized in a federal inspection report as ‘’pinhole leaks.’’

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Foot traffic weakened a liner in another part of the plant that contributed to a 2018 leak of uranium solution through the plant’s floor, according to the NRC. The 2018 leak, which occurred near a spiking station that mixes solutions, contaminated soil, prompting an outcry from community residents about operating practices at Westinghouse.

Since the leak of uranium solution, state and federal agencies have revealed the existence of previously unreported leaks at the plant. Troubles at the plant have sparked public meetings in eastern Richland County, where many neighbors have criticized Westinghouse for not keeping them informed.

The Westinghouse plant converts uranium hexafluoride into uranium dioxide to make nuclear fuel assemblies for atomic power plants. Chemicals used in the process can be hazardous if people are exposed to substantial amounts. Among the threats are kidney and liver damage. Uranium is a radioactive material that also can increase a person’s risks of cancer.

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The NRC inspection report, completed in January, said Westinghouse was supposed to ensure that walking pads were across the liner to prevent problems, but “this proved to be ineffective.’’ The report said “13 pinhole leaks were found in the liner, indicating that the liner had been walked on.’’ The problems, discovered Dec. 9, occurred in a section of the plant with a second spiking station, similar to the spiking station where the leak was found in 2018.

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The company has a decades long history of groundwater contamination. Regulators say the pollution is contained on the site, and if tainted water does trickle off the property, it won’t flow toward homes in the Hopkins area that rely on wells for drinking water. Groundwater problems include contamination from fluoride, solvents and nitrate. Concerns have risen recently upon the revelation of previously unknown leaks at the plant in 2008 and 2011. Westinghouse knew about the leaks but did not inform regulators for years.

Westinghouse also has had multiple problems in the past five years complying with federal nuclear standards. In addition to the 2018 uranium leak, the company also had troubles in 2016 when inspectors found that uranium had built up in an air pollution control device, creating a potentially dangerous situation for workers. Last year, the company dealt with a small fire in a bin containing nuclear plant refuse, as well as uranium-tainted water leaking from a rusty shipping container.

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