Radioactive uranium has leaked through a three-inch hole in the floor at a nuclear fuel factory in South Carolina, contaminating the soil below the plant, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says.
According to the commission, the hole goes six feet down into the soil below the Westinghouse factory’s concrete floor. While the commission cannot yet say whether the toxic substance has leached into the area’s groundwater, agency records show that the soil beneath the plant contains 1,300 times the amount of uranium typically found in soil.
The commission learned of the leak on July 12, and still does not have results on recent groundwater tests, which would show whether pollution had washed into the area’s water supply.
State Department of Health and Environmental Control officials said that the leak does not pose a threat to local water supplies, but activists are concerned that Congaree National Park, a vast wetland just several miles from the plant, may be contaminated.
“It’s a pretty big concern if you have an unknown quantity of material containing uranium leaching into the groundwater,” local anti-nuclear activist Tom Clements told The State. Exposure to uranium can cause kidney failure and can increase a person’s risk of cancer.
The Westinghouse fuel factory turns uranium into several types of fuel for nuclear reactors. Fuel manufactured at the South Carolina facility is used in nuclear reactors in the US, Europe, and Asia.
Despite boasting that “no company is more focused on nuclear fuel reliability,” Westinghouse’s South Carolina factory has seen its share of safety foul-ups in the past. The plant was shut down two years ago following a uranium build-up in an air pollution control device.
Last year, a hose malfunction sprayed a worker with a toxic solution, sending him fleeing to an emergency decontamination shower. In both cases, the company resolved to hire new management and overhaul its safety procedures.
The factory has been operational for almost five decades, and is one of a handful of nuclear fuel factories in the US. At present, its federal operating license is up for renewal.
The plant is still operating, but the section where the hole was discovered has been shut down until repairs can be completed.