By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
Shipping containers are everywhere. We see them on the highway hauled by trucks, at ports aboard ships, at storage facilities around the nation, even as start-up locations for micro-stores. When combined, they can be used as homes. Earlier this year, authorities in London approved plans to construct a nine-story office building made out of shipping containers.
Get started on your Homeland Security degree at American Military University.
Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel Facility in Columbia, South Carolina, has used shipping containers for years to store nuclear-contaminated waste in metal drums. The company periodically processes these waste materials and extracts the uranium so that it can be recycled for use at its plant.
Almost two months ago, according to The State, Westinghouse workers noticed that one of its 40-foot-long shipping containers stored outdoors had a hole in the top of the container. The drums inside were full of waste materials, including radioactive trash such as rags and mop heads contaminated with uranium.
The hole allowed the uranium waste to leak into the soil beneath the container. Subsequent testing showed that the amount of uranium present in the soil was nearly twice that of the safety standard of 11 parts per million.
The State wrote that “the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control are looking into the matter, even as Westinghouse scrambles to improve the way it stores barrels of nuclear garbage.”
Westinghouse Facility Is One of Three Fuel Fabrication Plants in the US
The Westinghouse facility is one of only three fuel fabrication plants in the United States. The other two are the Global Nuclear Fuel-Americas in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Framatome, Inc. in Richland, Washington.
The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) classifies facilities that possess special nuclear materials (plutonium, uranium-233, or uranium enriched in the isotopes uranium-233 or uranium-235) into three categories. All three fuel fabrication plants are rated as Category 3 Fuel Facilities because they are of low strategic value based on the materials’ potential for being used in nuclear weapons. Category 3 facilities are subject to the least stringent federal safety requirements.
The fuel fabrication plants process low-enriched uranium into very small pellets. These pellets are then loaded and encapsulated into nuclear fuel rods approximately 12 feet long for future use in nuclear reactors. Workers at these fabrication plants have a greater chance of handling dangerous radioactive materials than the local public has.
Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel Incident Not the First at the Facility
Westinghouse has used shipping containers for years to store the drums and the company periodically processes these waste materials and extracts the uranium so that it can be recycled for use at its plant.
This incident is not the most recent event at the facility. In mid-July, a lid blew off a drum containing mop heads, rags, filters and laboratory waste. Several ounces of uranium-235 were also in the container.
While it is unclear what caused the lid to fly off, the result was some of the contents smoldered before the paper in the drum ignited. Although no one was injured, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that inhaling or ingesting high concentrations of uranium can cause bone, lung and liver cancers.
Previously, two incidents occurred at the Westinghouse plant that were not reported to state or federal authorities. In 2008 and 2011, leaks in the plant’s contaminated wastewater line polluted two test wells adjacent to the nuclear fuel rod plant. Westinghouse believes the leaks were fairly shallow and did not affect nearby residents. However, the NRC did not learn about the 2011 leak until 2018 and only recently found out about the 2008 leak in mid-July 2019.
In fact, due to the reporting requirements for Category 3 facilities, the NRC might never have become aware of these incidents because Westinghouse stated that it was not required to report the leaks.
NRC’s Significant Issues with Westinghouse during the Past 10 Years
In January 2010, Westinghouse reported to the NRC that approximately 200 gallons of uranium-bearing ammoniated (5-7%) wastewater had overflowed from the facility’s “Q” tanks into the diked area below the tanks. After operators received a high-level alarm, they shut down the process and stopped the spill in less than six minutes. Non-essential personnel were evacuated and the remaining personnel had to don PPE-respirators with ammonia cartridges during the clean-up period. There was no concern of uranium, but rather of high ammonia concentrations.
In April 2012, Westinghouse told the NRC that an employee cleaning scrubber piping in the conversion area of the plant had his left forearm and left foot exposed to a nitric acid solution containing uranium. He underwent a decontamination process and was sent to the local hospital for further treatment where he was released.
In May 2016, during an annual inspection, Westinghouse reported that 100 kilograms of uranium was found on an air scrubber, a physical barrier designed to limit the quantity of uranium in the air. The NRC’s Environment, Health and Safety Department determined that the amount of uranium exceeded the allowable limit. As a result, Westinghouse had to shut down part of the plant. The NRC cited Westinghouse because the uranium build-up could have caused a radiation burst or even a small explosion.
In July 2018, Westinghouse reported to the NRC the presence of a crack in the epoxy coating covering an area of the floor in the facility’s hydrofluoric acid spiking station. An investigation found a three-inch hole in the cement had allowed the acid to leak into the soil to a depth of approximately six feet.
Soil samples results indicated 4,000 parts per million. Soil usually contains about three parts per million of uranium. These levels are 1,300 times higher than the amount of uranium typically found in soil. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesperson, Tommy Crosby said, “there is no danger to the public in any way, shape, or form from this singular event.”
However, the most serious incident occurred in the 1990s when uranium built up in a furnace that could have resulted in a small explosion. Federal regulators fined Westinghouse $24,000.
What Needs to Occur at Our Nuclear Fuel Fabrication Plants
Over the past 10 years, the NRC has filed 17 reports on Westinghouse, 45 on Global Nuclear Fuel-Americas and 13 on Framatome, Inc. While not all of the reported incidents involve radioactive elements, the issues raised in the reports are significant.
In response to the shipping container incident, Tom Vukovinsky, a NRC inspection official, told the Charlotte Observer, “We are concerned. We had an inspector look at this when he was out there roughly a month ago. So it is going to be in part of our inspection report that’s coming out. Because of all the other issues going on [at Westinghouse over the past few years], it’s something we’re interested in.”
The incidents occurring at our nation’s nuclear fuel fabrication plants warrant closer investigation by federal authorities. In addition, these agencies should consider replacing the current safety requirements at these three facilities with more stringent requirements that might protect against future such incidents.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.
Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.