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Investigation continues at Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant

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Columbia’s Westinghouse nuclear fuel fabrication plant has received a list of corrective actions from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after an annual inspection found an excessive amount of uranium-bearing material in an air scrubber at the plant.

The actions, outlined in a Confirmatory Action Letter (CAL), include shutting down affected systems, performing a root cause analysis, conducting a safety review and revising and updating maintenance and management procedures.

The NRC also said the facility is to install physical modifications to the system, train personnel operating and maintaining it, review other potentially affected systems and retain an external expert to oversee such functions.

“The commitments outlined in the CAL will greatly reduce the likelihood of such incidents in the future,” said NRC Region II Administrator Cathy Haney in a release. “Westinghouse management has cooperated fully and has assured us of their commitment to these corrective actions and continued safe operations.”

The material was discovered during an annual maintenance shutdown in May. Analysis showed that uranium levels in the material were higher than allowed by NRC requirements in the facility license.

On July 14, Westinghouse reported to NRC that it had exceeded the uranium mass limit for the scrubber section.

“We are taking this very seriously,” Courtney Boone, Westinghouse Electric Company director of press relations and public affairs, said today. “There were no injuries, there was no threat to public health or the environment. From a safety perspective, we are working closely with the NRC on the matter and are working to identify the root cause and the appropriate actions related to it.”

In a letter to Westinghouse dated Aug. 11, the NRC said “it is our understanding that you have taken, or will take” the specified actions.

NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said the excess material did not pose a significant danger.

 “The worst thing that could have happened would have been what we call a criticality, which is a small chain reaction in the material,” he said. “It would have been more of a danger to workers in the area than to the public.”

The investigation by the six-member Augmented Inspection Team (AIT) is ongoing, and the NRC may mandate further action. The AIT, which includes fuel facility inspectors, a manager from the NRC’s regional office in Atlanta and specialists from the agency’s headquarters in Rockville, Md., will issue a final report within 30 days of completing its inspection. 

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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