Nuclear Pollution

Nuclear tech company to spend millions in Richland County SC

Westinghouse will invest $131 million in its troubled nuclear fuel factory on Bluff Road under a plan that includes improving pollution controls at the facility, which has been plagued by leaks and spills and recently has drawn scrutiny from federal agencies about environmental problems.

The plan was announced in a news release Wednesday morning by Gov. Henry McMaster’s office. McMaster praised Westinghouse for the investment.

“South Carolina continues to show that we truly are the place to do business, and this $131 million investment is a further testament to that,” McMaster said in the news release. “We’ve worked hard to provide in-state businesses with a highly-trained workforce that meets their demands, and because of that, we are finding success.”

There was no word on how many jobs, if any, would be created because of the investment. But anyone looking to apply for a position with Westinghouse can go to the company’s careers webpage. The project is expected to be completed by 2026, the governor’s office said.

Wednesday’s announcement is a potentially significant step in the company’s effort to gain a new 40-year operating license, which is critical to keeping the plant open.

The current license expires in 2027, but Westinghouse is seeking a new license now to help ensure future stability of its business to customers. An environmental study for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission — a report criticized by some federal agencies as inadequate — recommended the 40-year license, as did an advisory panel to McMaster.

But the US Department of the Interior recommended a 20-year license because of pollution that has seeped into groundwater at the plant, a problem the department said could threaten nearby Congaree National Park. Making significant improvements at Westinghouse could mollify some concerns about future environmental threats.

Operating in South Carolina since 1969, the Westinghouse Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility makes fuel rods for the nation’s atomic power plants. The business includes product engineering, testing laboratories, fuel marketing and contract administration, officials said.

Approximately 10% of US electricity comes from nuclear fuel manufactured at Westinghouse’s Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility, the news release said. The Westinghouse plant is one of three nuclear fuel factories of its kind in the country.

According to plans, the company’s $131 million investment includes upgrades to equipment and procedures, increasing the company’s capacity and future growth.

Westinghouse will “enhance” pollution prevention and controls, under the plan. The investment also will help expand automation and digitalization, ways the news release said would improve inspection capabilities and product quality.

“We believe this investment is a critical element of our long-term growth and risk reduction strategy to better serve and protect our customers, community and employees,” Westinghouse Vice President of Columbia Fuel Operations Michael Annacone said in the release.

Westinghouse’s fuel plant, which employs about 1,000 workers, has been under intense scrutiny the past five years because of spills and leaks, and information has surfaced about contaminated groundwater that had been unknown for years to regulators and the public.

Among other troubles, uranium, a radioactive material, leaked through a hole in the plant’s floor and uranium built up in an air pollution control device, a problem that could have sent a burst of radiation inside the plant. Leaking containers also allowed toxins to dribble into the ground.

The US Department of the Interior and the US Environmental Protection Agency recently voiced concerns about the plant in comment letters to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is weighing whether to grant the 40-year license. The SC Department of Natural Resources also expressed reservations.

Bob Guild, a veteran environmental lawyer and local Sierra Club member, questioned the impact of the $131 million plant announcement. The news release did not explain in detail how much of the investment would be for specific improvements to protect the environment. It also did not address the legacy of pollution on the property.

“I’m very skeptical that there is significant investment in pollution control,” he said.

“To the extent they are committing resources to improving processes to ensure this doesn’t happen again, all the better,” Guild said. “But none of that addresses cleaning up contamination that is historic at the site.”

Despite the problems, the plant is popular with local politicians for the jobs it brings and its economic impact in the Columbia area.

“With its more than 50 years and 900 employees here, Westinghouse is a long-standing institution in Richland County’s manufacturing landscape,” Richland County Council Chair Paul Livingston said in the news release.

Westinghouse’s plant, at 5801 Bluff Road, is about 12 miles from the junction of Interstate 26 and Interstate 77. It is southeast of Columbia.

The facility currently covers 1,155 acres that include 550,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space. Information of how much bigger the facility’s physical footprint would be in the expansion was not immediately available.

This story has been updated.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

This is a breaking news story

In a breaking news situation, facts can be unclear and the situation may still be developing. The State is trying to get important information to the public as quickly and accurately as possible. This story will be updated as more information becomes available, and some information in this story may change as the facts become clearer. Refresh this page later for more updated information.

IMG_Westinghouse_IMG_529_3_1_O6EOU8NU_L429595486.JPG
This aerial shows Bluff Road nuclear fuel factory near Columbia, SC It is operated by Westinghouse. Courtesy High Flyer

This story was originally published December 15, 2021 9:35 AM.

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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Noah Feit is a Real Time reporter with The State focused on breaking news, public safety and trending news. The award-winning journalist has worked for multiple newspapers since starting his career in 1999.
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