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Regulatory agency highlights concerns at Westinghouse plant

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Despite findings of communication breakdowns and “an unacceptable potential” of exposing workers to radiation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expressed confidence in the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant’s response to an incident that closed part of its Columbia facility in August.

NRC executives presented a summary of an ongoing special inspection begun after an air scrubber at the Bluff Road plant exceeded a safe uranium mass limit during a public meeting Tuesday night at the S.C. State Museum.

“We’ve been here for several weeks now, with additional inspectors witnessing and observing their corrective actions – much more than we normally do,” said Mark Lesser, director of the Region II Fuel Facility Inspection Division. “ … We were certainly concerned with extent of problems that were there – not following procedures, not having adequate management measures, not having adequate management oversight, complacency, lack of questioning attitude.”

The Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant's Bluff Road facility has been the subject of an ongoing investigation after a scrubber at the plant exceeded uranium mass limits in July.  (Photo/Provided)On July 14, Westinghouse notified the NRC that a scrubber had potentially exceeded the uranium mass limit for “nuclear criticality,” or an incident that could pose a danger to on-site workers – though Westinghouse initially suspected the results were wrong, Lesser said Tuesday. An NRC inspector, on site conducting a different inspection, confirmed safe levels of uranium buildup had been exceeded, and Westinghouse filed an updated report with the NRC on July 26. The agency mobilized an Augmented Inspection Team (AIT) on July 28.

“Westinghouse recognizes that we have had significant performance lapses at the Columbia site,” said Michelle DeWitt, Westinghouse interim senior vice president of nuclear fuel and components management. “Decision-making was flawed, and we did not meet our own high standards and nuclear safety expectations.”

Up to 170 of the approximately 1,000 employees at the 47-year-old plant have been temporarily laid off during the ongoing investigation. Those employees are being offered no-interest loans and medical benefits.

“We expect them all to come back to work,” Mike Annacone, Westinghouse vice president of Columbia recovery, said Tuesday. Annacone also said anticipated overtime once the affected area of the plant restarts should help employees pay off the loans.

Westinghouse spokeswoman Courtney Boone told The State newspaper last month that safety concerns did not prompt the layoffs.

While NRC and Westinghouse officials stressed that the excess uranium buildup posed no significant threat to public or environmental health, the NRC nonetheless uncovered areas of concern at the plant.

“There was an unacceptable potential for a criticality event,” said Omar Lopez, head of the AIT and chief of safety for the Region II Fuel Facility Inspection Division. “The safety controls that the licensee was taking credit for were not effective in controlling the mass.”

Lopez told dozens of meeting attendees about inadequate safety measures, including incorrect calculations that underestimated the size of uranium particles and water sprays inside the scrubber that did not function correctly because their nozzles were pointed the wrong way.

Internal inspections and documentation of findings were also inconsistent, Lopez said. For a period of at least three years, Lopez said, “the control forms – which are the paperwork that Westinghouse staff uses to document these inspections – were not filled out correctly, to the point that, in many cases, my team could not determine the inspection results.”

Lopez also criticized Westinghouse twice restarting the scrubber in question without performing a detailed inspection.

“The mindset was just to go and clean out the scrubber instead of a mindset of implementing a safety control,” he said.

Westinghouse has promised several corrective actions, including a top-to-bottom review of the design, maintenance and operation of its scrubber system, a full root-cause investigation, overhauled training programs and independent safety reviews, including an oversight board. Annacone said the measures will be vigorously enforced before and after restart to ensure long-term performance improvement.

So far, Lesser said, the NRC is satisfied with Westinghouse’s response. The agency expects to issue its final inspection report, which could include other potential violations and/or fines, early next month.

“We are in the process of reviewing their corrective action, witnessing it and inspecting it,” Lesser said. “We certainly will be up there for a while until we see better performance.”

View the NRC’s Tuesday presentation here.  

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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