A safety investigation at Westinghouse’s nuclear fuel factory in Columbia has uncovered additional problems when Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) inspectors discovered more radioactive material had built up in the plant than was previously thought. The amount of uranium found in an air pollution control system pipe may have exceeded a federal safety limit, according to a federal event notification report. Uranium was found in the crook of a pipe that could “potentially exceed” a limit on the material of 80 pounds. 

NRC became aware of the problem on 23 August, some five weeks after it was notified that uranium had accumulated in another part of the air pollution scrubber system, the notification report said. In that incident, NRC reported that 191 pounds of uranium had been found in the scrubber, which is about three times the legal limit for uranium in that section of the Westinghouse factory.

In another incident on 7 August, NRC found that “residual material” had been found in an old scrubber, an air pollution control device out of service since 2002, but the amount of uranium did not appear to exceed a limit for that part of the plant. 

None of the incidents posed any danger to the surrounding community and no workers at the factory were harmed, according to the NRC, although a build up of nuclear material can increase the chances of a “critical event”. While material used at the plant is low enriched uranium, it still poses a hazard if not properly monitored, NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said.

Westinghouse officials said they are working to understand why the uranium had built up and to make improvements to prevent future problems. Until problems that caused the build up are resolved, Westinghouse has shut down a chemical processing area that includes the scrubber. It also has temporarily laid off about one-tenth of the 1,000-person workforce at the 47-year-old plant. The company has said it still expects to meet production schedules.

Westinghouse also announced a series of “executive leadership transitions” including the appointment of Michelle DeWitt as interim senior vice president. Her duties include oversight of the Columbia plant. Mike Annacone will become the Columbia site vice president after Westinghouse restarts the part of the plant closed as a result of the uranium issue. Annacone currently heads “recovery efforts” on the scrubber issue, Westinghouse said in a news release.

The latest uranium accumulation problems are not the first plant. In 2004, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission fined Westinghouse $24,000 after learning the atomic material had built up for eight years in a plant incinerator. The fine prompted the company to make $3m worth of improvements and replace its incinerator. Overall, Westinghouse has faced about a dozen major NRC enforcement actions since the late 1990s in South Carolina, NRC records show.