After a leak of radioactive material at the Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel Plant in Columbia, WLTX wanted to give you a Uranium 101 education.
We had a lot of the same questions you did, what's it used for? How's it made? How dangerous is it?
Uranium is a natural element that has a level of radiation less than one percent, according to Roger Hannah with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
In fact, DHEC says you might have come across it naturally already in groundwater or rocks, and Hannah agreed.
“I would say it's likely that most people would be exposed to some uranium at some point in their life, yes,” Hannah told WLTX over the phone.
Isotope uranium-235 is the radioactive portion of the element. In nature, the radioactive part is only .07 percent, according to Hannah.
But what's it used for commercially?
“There may be some research applications and I know that depleted uranium that has gone through the process is sometimes used for military purposes for ammunition and things, but I'm not aware of any widespread use of uranium other than nuclear fuel,” Hannah said.
Uranium is usually mined, then sent to an enrichment facility where the radioactive isotope grows from less than one percent to three to five percent.
From there, it goes to a plant, like Westinghouse here in Columbia, to be fused to ceramic pellets, which are then inserted into fuel rods.
Last, it goes to a nuclear power plant for fuel to make electricity through generating steam.
In newly made fuel rods, Hannah says uranium is safe.
But, over exposure or repeated exposure to uranium in other forms, like any other radioactive material, can cause cancers, leukemia and other medical issues.
But the NRC told WLTX that's not the case with Westinghouse.
“We don't have any information that would indicate that workers were exposed or that this poses any threat to the environment or to any members of the public living nearby the facility,” Hannah told WLTX repeatedly.
To read DHEC’s pamphlet on uranium go here.
The NRC says uranium is used as fuel in every commercial nuclear plant across the country, which is one of the things they monitor closely.
When fuel rods are “spent” after being used at reactors, that’s when they’re sent to dry-cast or underwater storage located underground at most nuclear sites, Hannah said. It’s also when they’re more radioactively dangerous.
Hannah explained NRC inspectors are on-site at every nuclear reactor but do periodic inspections at fuel manufacturing plants like Westinghouse.