Federal regulators say they are looking into a uranium leak which occurred at a nuclear fuel plant outside Columbia earlier this month.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed the incident occurred at the Westinghouse Columbia Site southeast of the city, which assembles fuel rods for use in reactors. An NRC spokesman said crews performing maintenance work discovered a hole in the concrete floor on July 12.
“Upon further examination, they saw that a leak had gone through the concrete floor and into the ground below the building,” spokesman Roger Hannah told South Carolina Radio Network.
The State newspaper first reported the July 12 discovery on Tuesday.
Hannah said Westinghouse is still investigating what happened, but said it appears hydrofluoric acid used at the plant somehow created a hole in the floor. and the uranium went through the hole into the ground itself.
He said there is not believed to be risk to the public or the plant’s roughly 1,000 employees at this point, since the leak was contained to the site and no public wells are in the vicinity. However, the agency said it is not sure exactly how much uranium seeped into the soil before the problem was discovered. No groundwater tests have been conducted since the discovery.
Uranium is a radioactive toxic metal which can cause organ damage is inhaled or swallowed in water.
The Westinghouse Columbia Site was briefly shut down in 2016 after a uranium buildup was discovered in one of the plant’s air scrubbers. While the uranium amounts were not dangerous levels for exposure reasons, NRC inspectors were concerned the levels could cause an explosion if the uranium molecules reacted.