Columbia fuel facility gets final EIS for 40-year renewal

August 1, 2022, 3:25PMNuclear News

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed license renewal of Westinghouse Electric’s Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility (CFFF) in Hopkins, S.C, on July 29, recommending renewal for a 40-year term.

Basics: The CFFF, which has been in operation since 1969, produces the low-enriched uranium fuel assemblies used to generate about half of all nuclear energy in the United States. Its license was last renewed by the NRC in 2007 for a 20-year period. If the current request is granted, the facility would be authorized to operate for 40 years from the renewal date, subject to the determinations in the staff’s safety review, which has not yet been released.

The final EIS, like the draft EIS released in August 2021, concludes that renewing the license would result in “small” impacts on all resources, except for groundwater and waste generation during decommissioning, which would have “small to moderate” impacts. The staff also considered a 20-year renewal period in its environmental review and concluded the impacts would be similar to those of a 40-year renewal but over a shorter timeframe.

Following the release of the draft EIS, the staff conducted outreach to communities near the facility, including an extended 105-day public comment period, a virtual public meeting, local newspaper and radio advertisements, direct mailings to residents, and other measures. More than 70 people submitted comments, which are addressed in the final EIS.

The process—EA vs. EIS: The NRC received a license renewal application from Westinghouse in December 2014, and in June 2018, the agency published a final environmental assessment (EA) and a finding of no significant impact (FONSI). The next month, however, Westinghouse discovered that an equipment leak had led to uranyl nitrate containing hydrofluoric acid entering the soil under the facility building through a three-inch hole in the facility’s concrete floor. In addition, Westinghouse initiated an investigation under the purview of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) into a 2011 wastewater leak from a pipe buried under the facility.

That information, and the public concern that followed, led the NRC to reopen its environmental review of the CFFF application. The agency withdrew its EA and FONSI and announced the publication of an updated draft EA. Following the draft EA’s comment period, NRC staff determined that “after considering new information provided by Westinghouse related to the remedial investigations being conducted under a consent agreement with the SCDHEC,” a FONSI could not be reached.

Groundwater impacts: The executive summary of the final EIS states that “because the past operation of the CFFF has had a noticeable effect on the water quality of the onsite groundwater that continues to be observed in the most recent data, and on the water quality of the onsite surface water bodies (including past exceedance of water quality standards and the current exceedance of uranium residential screening levels in Mill Creek sediments), the NRC staff concluded that the cumulative impacts to groundwater and surface water from past and current CFFF operations are MODERATE.

“Although the proposed continued operation of the CFFF for an additional 40 years could noticeably alter on-site groundwater quality, the continued operation would not destabilize or significantly affect the groundwater resource because there is a low potential for contaminants to move off-site.”

Next steps: Once the Environmental Protection Agency publishes a notice in the Federal Register acknowledging that it has received the final EIS, the NRC must wait at least 30 days before issuing a licensing decision. With that decision, the NRC will also publish its final safety evaluation report for the license renewal, according to the NRC’s July 29 statement.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced in December 2021 that Westinghouse plans to expand operations at the facility with an investment of $131 million. By January 2026, the project would include upgrades to equipment and procedures, enhancements to the CFFF’s pollution prevention systems and controls, automation and digital upgrades, and improvements to inspection capabilities and product quality, according to the governor's office.

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