Nuclear Pollution

Study supports license for criticized atomic fuel factory in SC

Westinghouse Electric's nuclear fuel plant on Bluff Road southeast of Columbia

Westinghouse Electric’s nuclear fuel plant on Bluff Road southeast of Columbia

A study by federal nuclear regulators recommends a new 40-year operating license for an atomic fuel factory near Columbia that is considered vital to electric utilities but unwanted by neighbors worried about pollution from the aging facility.

The Westinghouse fuel rod plant presents mostly small environmental threats in the future, meaning it should be allowed to operate another 40 years, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission report.

Keeping the plant running also could be better for the economy than denying the license and closing the plant, while also protecting a facility that makes nuclear fuel for the nation’s atomic power plants, the study said.

If the plant closed, the country would need a new nuclear fuel factory elsewhere in the US that would likely cost more to build than keeping the Columbia facility running, the study said.

Many major points in the study echo findings in an environmental study three years ago of whether Westinghouse should get a license to operate another four decades.

Regulators with the NRC agreed to do the more in depth study, known as an Environmental Impact Statement, after complaints that the first report was poorly researched and did not assess pollution and accidents in recent years.

The latest report’s findings and recommendation represent a major milestone in Westinghouse’s seven-year quest for a new license. The public has 45 days to comment on the draft environmental study. A final decision on the license is expected by spring 2022, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said.

The Westinghouse plant, a major Richland County employer that opened in 1969, is one of three atomic fuel rod plants of its kind in the US The long, thin rods made at the plant wind up in fuel assemblies that are loaded into nuclear reactors to make energy.

“After assessing and weighing the costs and benefits, the NRC staff concludes that benefits of the proposed action outweigh the economic and environmental costs,” according to the study, dated July 2021.

Trying to redevelop the property for another business could be a lengthy process “and there likely would be some disruption in employment and tax revenues,” the study said.

Critics of the plant were incensed Friday at the federal nuclear agency’s decision to support a new 40-year license. Black community leaders, a Native American tribal chief and environmentalists said they’ll continue to fight the Westinghouse factory.

“I’m pretty damned furious,” said Michelle Mitchum, chief of the Pine Hill Indians, a small tribe concerned that continued work at the plant could jeopardize ancient burial grounds.

The Bluff Road plant, located in eastern Richland County near many African American communities, has been set by a series of accidents, ranging from a leak of uranium through a hole in the floor, to a potentially dangerous buildup of uranium in an air pollution control device since 2016. Uranium is a radioactive material tied to an array of human health ailments.

At the same time, groundwater on the site is heavily polluted from more than 50 years of operations, The State has previously reported. South Carolina environmental regulators have said they didn’t know about some groundwater pollution until recent years.

Virginia Sanders, a resident of eastern Richland County, said the pollution from the plant jeopardizes African American neighbors who depend on private wells for drinking water.

So far, there is no evidence wells have been contaminated. The study says that while there are uncertainties about the future movement of pollution, ”the current groundwater contamination is not likely to travel” offsite anytime soon.

Some neighbors say it’s only a matter of time before contaminated groundwater escapes the site. Contaminants in the water include solvents, nitrates and nuclear material. Uranium also has contaminated sediments above federal standards in Mill Creek.

Sanders was particularly upset at a finding in the NRC report that the plant poses little threat to minority communities, often referred to as environmental justice communities.

“We are expendable, we are collateral damage — and they don’t give a damn about us,” Sanders said. “I’m talking about Westinghouse and NRC.”

Nuclear safety advocate Tom Clements, a major plant critic, said Westinghouse’s track record warrants no more than a 10-year license renewal.

“More accidents and releases at the fuel plant are unavoidable and the NRC has simply ignored that fact in the flawed environmental document,” said Clements, who heads SRS Watch. The state Sierra Club’s Priscilla Preston also voiced concerns about the study’s conclusions.

Plant opponents have advocated for a 10-year license because Westinghouse has had many environmental and nuclear safety violations during the past five years. The company has said it’s committed to resolving the problems.

The NRC’s Burnell said the agency believes oversight of the Westinghouse plant is adequate, but that it still will conduct a specific safety examination.

“The safety portion of the review will reach a determination on whether operation of the facility under a renewed license would protect the public,” he said in an email Monday.

On Friday, Westinghouse moved to ease community concerns. Westinghouse has an agreement with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to monitor and contain lingering pollution.

“The Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility has worked diligently and urgently to address legacy issues,” the company said in a statement. “We have made tremendous progress as noted within the draft EIS. Simultaneously, we have strengthened our environmental program.”

A key point in the report says there wouldn’t be much of a different environmental threat from the site if the license is approved for 40 years, 20 years or turned down altogether. The current license expires in 2027.

The new study also says a 40-year license is justified because programs are underway to “minimize the effects” of releases on others who spend time on rivers and creeks in the area, and the NRC will have a chance to review company plans to monitor groundwater and surface water. The Environmental Impact Statement also said operating the plant another 40 years would have little impact on historic and cultural resources.

This story was updated with comments from the NRC

This story was originally published July 31, 2021 5:31 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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