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Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommends renewal of Westinghouse license for another 40 years

Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility in Hopkins is one of three in the US that produces nuclear fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors.

RICHLAND COUNTY, S.C. — A Richland County facility that manufactures nuclear fuel assemblies used in power plants could be getting a 40-year license renewal.

The possibility follows the recent release by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of its final environmental impact statement regarding Westinghouse Electric Co.'s Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility (CFFF). The facility is located off Bluff Road in Hopkins.

Westinghouse had applied for the license renewal in December 2014 and, in the application, did not propose changes to their current licensed processes or construction of new buildings or structures. The application was renewed twice -- once in March 2019 and again in 2021 -- based on NRC's requests for additional information.

In its statement, NRC staff recommend renewing the company's license based on the review and subject to determinations made in the staff's safety review of the application.

CFFF manufactures fuel rods from enriched uranium for commercial nuclear plants in the U.S. and around the world. The company's first license was issued in 1969 by the Atomic Energy Commission and was last renewed by the NRC for 20 years in 2007.

In addition to an option of non-renewal, NRC staff also considered a 20-year lease renewal but, according to the report, "concluded the impacts (of a 20-year lease) would be similar to those of a 40-year renewal but over a shorter timeframe."

If the license is not renewed, CFFF would continue to operate under its current license until it expires on September 30, 2027. After that date, if the license is not renewed, CFFF would begin a decommissioning process that would include any site remediation required.

The proposed renewal has already met pushback from Savannah River Site Watch (SRS Watch). 

“The 40-year license extension guarantees the risk of accidents and releases that will impact the environment and possibly human health over 40 years," SRS Watch director Tom Clements said in a release. "The NRC should reconsider its 40-year license recommendation and in the formal decision on the license period that is soon to come a 20-year license, at most, should be issued.”

In July 2018, CFFF reported a leak where uranyl nitrate and hydrofluoric acid seeped into the soil under the nuclear fuel facility. Westinghouse officials said at the time no groundwater was contaminated at the site.

In August 2021, Westinghouse agreed to contribute $21.25 million to South Carolina's Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program after federal charges were filed against the company for its involvement in the failed expansion of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Plant in Jenkinsville, South Carolina. Westinghouse eventually paid $2.168 billion in settlements after abandoning construction at the site.

In December 2021, Richland County Council voted unanimously to approve a $131 million agreement for the expansion and upgrade to Westinghouse Electric Company. The money is funding upgrades to equipment to enhance the facility's pollution prevention systems and controls, and expansion of automation and digitalization, which will improve inspection capabilities and product quality. 

The 40-year renewal option is an ongoing process. The NRC must still provide the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with a final environmental impact statement. After the EPA publishes a notice it has received the statement in the Federal Register, the NRC must wait at least 30 days before issuing a license decision. The NRC will then publish its final safety evaluation report detailing its technical review of the Westinghouse license renewal application.

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