Alarm system broke down at Westinghouse nuclear power plant

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Bluff Road Nuclear Fuel Plant near Columbia, SC It is operated by Westinghouse.

A nuclear accident warning system failed at the Westinghouse atomic fuel plant near Columbia recently after part of the plant suffered a power outage, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The incident involved an alarm system believed to warn of a ‘criticality’ event, or radiation explosion that could endanger workers inside the Westinghouse fuel plant in the southeast of Columbia.

A circuit breaker tripped Aug. 23, causing the plant’s criticality accident alarm system to lose power, according to an incident report Westinghouse provided to the NRC.

The warning system outage at Westinghouse happened just weeks before the NRC issued a license to keep the aging nuclear plant running for another 40 years. Many people objected to the 40-year license, arguing that the plant’s history of pollution and safety missteps justified a shorter license period.

In this case, all power was lost at two criticality alarm system stations, according to the NRC incident report. The report says a loop system consisting of seven horns and a strobe light was disabled. Some equipment did not work for at least 30 minutes, according to the report.

“The purpose of criticality accident alarm systems is not to prevent an accident but to warn workers that an accident has occurred and to evacuate,” said the NRC spokesperson, Dave Gasperson, in an email.

Westinghouse spokeswoman Karen Gay said the issue has been identified and corrected. Gay and Gasperson said there was no danger to the public. Gasperson said the alarm system hadn’t been out of service for some time.

Gay noted that even with the alarm system issue, other on-site horns were available to warn workers. A security officer could also have made a public announcement if necessary, she said.

Although there have been no known accidents at the plant, it is disappointing that the alarm system did not work – especially when the federal government will soon issue a new 40-year license for the nuclear plant, said Tom Clements, a critical Westinghouse nuclear security watchdog. He expects the license to be issued early next week.

A recent NRC study said the plant, which manufactures fuel rods for nuclear power plants, would have low to moderate environmental impacts over the next four decades. But nuclear safety advocates, environmentalists and those who live near the plant have said they are concerned about its impacts on Hopkins’ mostly African-American community.

The Westinghouse factory, established in 1969, has been plagued by accidents and groundwater contamination over the years. Since 1980, more than 40 environmental and safety issues have been linked to the Westinghouse plant, according to newspaper articles and public documents reviewed by The State.

A series of issues since 2016, including a uranium leak through a hole in the plant’s floor and the discovery of previously unknown groundwater pollution, have raised serious concerns in the community.

Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler called the alarm system problem a “worrying development in what has been a continuing pattern of problems at this plant”.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environmental beat for The State since 1995. He writes on a range of issues, including wildlife, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and the coastal development. He has won numerous awards, including Journalist of the Year by the SC Press Association in 2017. Fretwell graduated from the University of South Carolina and grew up in Anderson County. Contact him at 803 771 8537.
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