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South Carolina nuclear fuel plant can keep running for 40 years


Federal officials have granted a South Carolina factory which is just one of three in the country making fuel for nuclear plants a license to keep operating for 40 years.

Environmental groups had fought the new license for Westinghouse Nuclear in Columbia or at least asked federal officials to limit it to 20 years because of more than 40 environmental and safety problems at the facility since 1980.

Those issues included nuclear material leaking through the plant floor, the buildup of uranium in an air pollution control device and groundwater pollution near the factory, The State newspaper reported.

But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Monday it approved allowing the plant, built more than five decades ago, to keep making atomic fuel rods through 2062.

The agency cited a recent environmental study saying only small to moderate environmental impacts could be expected from the plant over the next 40 years.

Those environmental studies did not leave critics of the plant feeling better about its possible impacts, said Tom Clements, a nuclear safety watchdog.

"It's no surprise,'' Clements told the newspaper. "They have totally ignored public concerns about a 40-year operating license and all the events that have taken place over the last years. It makes it look like this was a done deal.''

Westinghouse has been ordered to pay a number of small fines over the past 40 years including $24,000 after ash in the plant's incinerator exceeded limits for uranium.

In 2018, an acid solution burned a small hole in the floor of the plant, allowing uranium to contaminate the soil. The company cleaned up the area.

Environmentalists also said Westinghouse has not done enough to make sure dangerous material doesn't enter groundwater around the plant, but state officials said extensive testing and review by their scientists and three independent firms left them confident the factory was not an environmental threat.

South Carolina's Westinghouse plant has nearly 1,000 workers and is one of three factories in the U.S. making the fuel to run nuclear power plants. The other facilities are in Wilmington, North Carolina; and Richland, Washington.

Westinghouse promised safety is its top priority as it continues to make the fuel over the next 40 years.

"The Columbia fuel fabrication facility plays a vital role in fueling the global operating nuclear fleet while also assuring United States energy independence," Patrick Fragman, Westinghouse's president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.