The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has rightly reopened an investigation into whether radioactive material that seeped into the soil beneath a Westinghouse fuel rod plant southeast of Columbia presents an environmental hazard.
The spilled uranium has the potential to seep into groundwater and contaminate ponds, creeks and possibly the Congaree River, which is about 3 miles away from the plant. Congaree National Park is about 6 miles downstream.
But so far Westinghouse, which is seeking a new 40-year license to continue its operations near Hopkins, has no plans to clean up the soil until after the plant is decommissioned, which, if the license were renewed, would be no sooner than 2058. According to the NRC, about 10 feet of soil would need to be excavated below the building.
The latest of the spills occurred in June when a uranium-hydrofluoric acid solution burned through a spill liner, ate a 3-inch hole in the concrete floor of the plant, then leaked into the soil. At least two other spills due to broken pipes occurred in 2008 and 2011.
According to the NRC, soil testing showed uranium pollution as high as 4,000 parts per million, about 1,300 times higher than normal levels. Uranium occurs naturally in soil at about three parts per million. Toxic levels can cause kidney damage and other serious health problems.
So far, there’s no evidence that groundwater has been contaminated. But area wells are being tested. Groundwater tests are also being done on the Westinghouse property.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), which is doing the testing, is expected to announce its results in several weeks. Even if no elevated levels of uranium are found in the groundwater, the NRC should mandate ongoing monitoring. It should also require stricter reporting standards. The NRC didn’t learn about the leaks in 2008 and 2011 until years afterward.
Before the latest revelations, reported by The State newspaper, the NRC had been ready to sign off on an environmental study that concluded issuing a new license to Westinghouse would “not significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”
But an NRC report in June said, “The contaminated material will likely be a source of future groundwater and/or surface water contamination if the material leaches in the shallow water-table aquifer.”
Uranium pollution isn’t the only problem at the site. Westinghouse built the plant in 1969. Nitrate pollution, which probably came from onsite wastewater lagoons, has contaminated groundwater near the site since the 1980s, and cleanup efforts have been only partially successful.
In 2016, a potentially dangerous buildup of uranium was discovered in an air pollution control device and, this year, the NRC cited Westinghouse for failing to have an adequate plan to limit a release of any radioactive buildup into the air.
So there are plenty of reasons for the NRC to take it slow and for DHEC to prove the radioactive pollution will not spread.
Westinghouse has about 10 years left on its current license. It obviously needs a better spill-containment system, and nearby residents, many of whom rely on wells, need long-term assurance the site will not threaten water supplies.