Nuclear Pollution

Feds: Congaree National Park threatened by nuclear fuel plant

The US Department of the Interior has raised alarms about pollution from a nuclear fuel plant near Columbia, saying it could “have potential impacts” on Congaree National Park as contamination trickles through the ground from the Westinghouse factory.

In a letter made public Friday, the department recommends the plant receive only a 20-year license to continue operating — instead of the 40 years proposed by Westinghouse and recommended by state nuclear advisers — because of environmental problems at the facility.

‘Multiple leaks or spills’ at the Westinghouse plant, as well as contamination from flooding, are chief worries, according to the seven-page letter.

Extensive groundwater contamination has been found beneath the Westinghouse plant, some of which only has been discovered in recent years, The State has previously reported.

Written to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the interior department letter said an environmental study of the plant’s impact on the area does not adequately address many issues — and the fuel plant’s potential impact on the national park is a major worry.

“The department is concerned that an existing subsurface contamination plume from the (factory) could have potential impacts to Congaree National Park and the Congaree River as it migrates through a highly interconnected hydrogeologic system within the park,” according to the letter from the Interior Department’s regional environmental officer, Joyce Stanley.

Stanley’s letter, dated Sept. 17, is the first comment from a federal environmental agency that has come to light with concerns about the Westinghouse plant. The Department of Interior oversees the National Park Service, which manages Congaree National Park.

Among other things, the department wants more extensive monitoring for groundwater pollution at the Westinghouse site, the letter said. It also wants to know how radioactive contamination might affect the Congaree River and how floods like the 2015 deluge that swamped Columbia could affect the area near the nuclear fuel plant.

The Westinghouse plant, built more than 50 years ago, makes fuel rods for commercial nuclear power plants. It handles uranium and other radioactive materials, as well as chemicals. It is about four miles up the road from Congaree National Park, a 27,000-acre preserve known for its expansive flood plain, meandering streams and towering, old-growth trees.

Westinghouse wants a license to operate the plant another 40 years, arguing that the facility is safe and improvements are being made after a recent history of problems. Gov. Henry McMaster’s Nuclear Advisory Council voted last month to support a 40-year license for the plant, citing improvements by Westinghouse.

But Stanley’s letter discourages a long-term license despite a Nuclear Regulatory Commission environmental study that downplayed the impacts of the plant. That environmental study recommended a 40 year license.

The earth’s changing climate is expected to bring heavier rainfall at the same time development is expected to increase in eastern Richland County, Stanley wrote.

A 20-year license is preferred “given all of the uncertainties regarding contaminant plume source, transport, and fate, as well as re-evaluation in the face of anticipated development and climate change impacts,” her letter said.

What impact the Interior Department letter will have on the NRC’s decision on a new license for Westinghouse is unknown. The decision is ultimately up to the nuclear oversight agency. The agency is taking public comments through Nov. 19. A decision on the license is expected next year.

Dave McIntyre, a spokesman for the NRC, said agency would take the letter into consideration as it decides whether to issue a new license.

“This is similar to some comments we have heard in public meetings and we will certainly review it,” he said, adding that Interior Department officials “have certain expertise and credibility. But we do take all comments seriously.”

Tom Clements, a nuclear safety advocate who is tracking the Westinghouse license issue, said the Interior Department raises legitimate concerns about pollution from the plant and how that might affect Congaree National Park, as well as the surrounding community.

“This is quite significant,” he said. “A federal agency that owns Congaree National Park, what they say can’t be brushed under the rug. ”

Congaree National Park, for years the only national park in South Carolina, draws about 100,000 visitors annually. The area was protected in the mid-1970s and became South Carolina’s first national park 18 years ago.

The Congaree River and its tributaries flow past or through the park below the nuclear plant. The park is widely known for its extensive and unspoiled forested flood plain.

Concerns by the Interior Department following a series of troubles at the Westinghouse plant in recent years and the discovery of groundwater pollution government officials had not been told about.

Since 2016, the plant has drawn NRC scrutiny over a buildup of radioactive uranium in an air pollution control device, leaking shipping containers and a leak of uranium through a hole in the plant’s floor, among other things.

At the same time, NRC officials said in 2018 that groundwater was polluted with unsafe levels of radioactive material from leaks that occurred years ago, but only recently revealed to state and federal regulators.

Many people who live near the plant have questioned whether Westinghouse could pollute their well water or cause other environmental problems.

But Westinghouse officials have said groundwater is not flowing toward their wells.. The company has an agreement with the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control to assess the contamination and take action when warranted.

McMaster’s nuclear committee, composed of political appointmentees, said last month it is satisfied with Westinghouse’s efforts, and its chairman argued that power plants need the product Westinghouse produces. The company’s role in the production of nuclear power is significant because it provides the fuel rods that make many atomic energy plants run.

Locally, the plant also is a major employer, with more than 1,000 workers. It is located between the national park and Interstate 77, east of the Congaree River.

A Westinghouse spokeswoman did not respond directly to the Interior Department concerns, but said the NRC will examine the comments.

The regulatory process allows for any public comment, and the letter from the Department of Interior was submitted to the NRC through the public comment period,” spokeswoman Karen Gay said in an email Friday afternoon.. “The NRC has a robust process that we fully support.”

This story was originally published November 5, 2021 4:07 PM.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment beat for The State since 1995. He writes about an array of issues, including wildlife, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. He has won numerous awards, including Journalist of the Year by the SC Press Association in 2017. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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