Federal authorities say a rusty 40-foot shipping container full of radioactive trash was found to be seeping contaminated sludge into the soil at Westinghouse fuel rod factory in S. Carolina, adding another radiation spike to the facility’s list of troubles.
The State reports the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state environmental officials are now investigating the Westinghouse Electric Co. nuclear fuel factory in Hopkins. The leak was discovered about two months ago. Last week, a sealed plant drum filled with rags, laboratory waste and mop heads caught on fire. No injuries were reported.
Uranium levels in the ground at one spot underneath the container are nearly double the 11ppm safety standard, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) reported on Friday, blaming the facility’s egregious waste storage protocol for the contamination. Rain entered through a hole in the 40-foot container’s roof, dousing the barrels full of radioactive trash stashed within, and the uranium-tainted water eventually trickled into the soil.
Negligently stored nuclear waste is only the most recent misfortune to plague the plant, located just outside the city of Columbia. Last year, the massive facility was found to be leaking uranium through a hole in its floor, and earlier this month a drum full of radioactive waste exploded and caught on fire.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been investigating the plant since 2016, when it was discovered uranium had been allowed to accumulate inside an air pollution control device at three times the federal safety standard. And Westinghouse had not even bothered to report earlier leaks in 2008 and 2011 to regulators. Groundwater beneath the factory is contaminated, and locals fear it will spread off the grounds – or that it already has.
“We are concerned,’’ said Tom Vukovinsky, an inspection official with the NRC in Atlanta. “We had an inspector look at this when he was out there roughly a month ago. So it is going to be in part of our inspection report that’s coming out. Because of all the other issues going on, it’s something we’re interested in.’’
A presentation showed scores of shipping containers on the site. These containers resemble the trailers on tractor-trailer trucks. Barrels are kept inside them.
The company periodically processes the waste material in the containers, squeezing uranium out so that the radioactive material can be used again at the nuclear fuel plant. Uranium, a major component in nuclear fuel, can be dangerous to people’s health if they are exposed in sufficient amounts.
Mike Annacone, Westinghouse’s plant manager, said his company already is taking steps to make sure similar leaks don’t occur in shipping containers that store nuclear waste.
Plant manager Mike Annacone blamed “a number of issues” for allowing dozens of shipping containers full of uranium-tainted garbage similar to the leaky one to build up on the grounds of the Westinghouse facility. The waste – mop heads and rags used to clean up radioactive material – is meant to be processed to recover usable uranium, but that processing has fallen impossibly far behind schedule, and the cursory once-overs given the aging, rusting boxes by plant workers have allowed appalling conditions to develop.
“We should not allow that condition to exist on our site,” Annacone said in a joint presentation with the DHEC at a community meeting on Thursday, promising to process the remaining material and test the soil underneath each container for contamination as it is emptied.
Cover image: FILE PHOTO © Reuters / Gleb Garanich