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Dead fish near SC nuclear fuel site were an early warning. Then came the spills and accidents

The State, BY SAMMY FRETWELL, JULY 30, 2022

Dead fish floated in a small pond near a nuclear fuel factory one day in 1980, raising concerns about the Columbia plant’s danger to the surrounding environment. A cocktail of contaminants had been documented in groundwater, which seeps into creeks and ponds, and it appeared that one of these pollutants — ammonia — had contributed to the fish kill in Gator Pond, according to environmental studies. It was a disturbing discovery that foreshadowed a variety of environmental and safety troubles the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant would deal with over the next 40 years.

Since 1980, more than 40 environmental and safety problems have been tied to the Westinghouse plant, ranging from groundwater pollution to nuclear safety violations that endangered plant workers, according to a review of news accounts and public records by The State. Despite those issues, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a final environmental study Friday that said the future environmental impact of the plant would be small to moderate. The NRC recommended a new license for the plant to operate for an additional 40 years, a decision that greases the skids for final license approval this fall.

John Grego, who is with the Friends of Congaree Swamp organization that supports Congaree National Park, said the fuel factory has had too many troubles of all kinds through the years. “The variety of problems is what troubles me, that this occurred in so many aspects of their culture,’’ Grego said. “It just seems to suggest systemic problems with the safety culture at Westinghouse. You had these long-standing problems that weren’t remediated, problems that weren’t reported.’’

Some of the pollution tied to Westinghouse was not known to the public or government regulators for years, which has incensed some Lower Richland residents who live near the plant. Some residents of the predominantly African-American community have said they were left out of the loop for too long.

Only in recent years, when a flurry of safety issues at the plant arose, did many people learn about past pollution. A key community concern is whether water pollution from the plant could one-day contaminate their drinking water wells. State regulators said mechanisms are now in place to hold Westinghouse more accountable, while resolving past environmental problems. The company struck a binding agreement with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control in 2019 to investigate and clean up pollution on the property. The company also is nearing completion of an investigative study of the site’s environmental problems, according to a statement Friday from DHEC.

……………………… Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler was skeptical. Stangler said he is not confident Westinghouse will improve the operation, despite recent assurances and agreements with state regulators to clean up and do a better job. The plant is located near the Congaree River. “They have a long track record of problems at that facility that would raise anyone’s eyebrows,’’ Stangler said. “It’s concerning if you have an interest in the environment; it’s concerning if you are someone who lives in the surrounding area. Time after time we have seen that they haven’t followed the rules, and they have had problems.’’


Troubles at Westinghouse began in the 1970s, not long after the plant opened, when a wastewater pond leaked. But problems continued steadily after the 1980 fish kill, sometimes little known to the public. After the company reported a leak of uranium through a hole in the plant floor in 2018, federal and state regulators learned that the company had spilled toxins into the ground in 2008 and in 2011 without telling them or the public. The company said it was not required to report the spills. Contaminants such as fluoride, uranium, solvents and ammonia have been found in groundwater on the Westinghouse site. Technetium, a nuclear pollutant, also has been discovered on the soggy property, but no one has yet pinpointed the cause of the pollution.

Some of the biggest troubles at Westinghouse have revolved around nuclear safety inside the plant. The company has run into trouble through the years for failing to make sure nuclear materials it manages didn’t trigger small bursts of radiation, which can endanger workers. Records show the NRC has expressed concerns multiple times with Westinghouse over the issue, known as criticality safety

……………………… Government records also show that people working at the plant falsified records, including as recently as 2009. In some cases, employees have been injured or threatened by nuclear accidents.

…………………. News accounts and government records also show that Westinghouse has, at times, had trouble handling and keeping track of nuclear material it is responsible for………………………………………….

August 1, 2022 - Posted by | environment, safety, USA

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