Energy Northwest looking at pricey public records request

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMarch 22, 2014 

Spent rods

A long robotic arm reaches down through 70 feet of water to move a spent nuclear fuel bundle inside the open core of Energy Northwest’s reactor north of Richland. The reactor is in the early stages of a 34-day shutdown for refueling and maintenance.

RICHARD DICKIN

Energy Northwest is facing a public records request so large that it could cost $1.5 million to $3 million to process it.

That's the estimate by Energy Northwest for processing a request from a Portland consulting firm that has worked with anti-nuclear Physicians for Social Responsibility. It is expecting to review up to 155,000 documents.

The cost will be passed on through the Bonneville Power Administration to ratepayers who use electricity produced at the Columbia Generating Station, Energy Northwest's nuclear power plant near Richland, according to Energy Northwest.

It's the largest public records request ever received by the agency.

"I consider this a harassment move just to get in our way, and guess who ends up paying," said Sid Morrison, Energy Northwest executive board chairman and former five-term Congressman.

But Charles Johnson of Physicians for Social Responsibility said the multimillion-dollar estimate seems more like a public relations spin than reality. The organization was not aware of the estimated costs of the document request before being contacted last week by the Herald.

Request targets uranium deal

Energy Northwest has received 40 requests from McCullough Research of Portland since February 2013 to produce public documents, many of those with notations that the information was being sought for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

In a normal year, Energy Northwest receives 38 requests for public records, a majority of them requiring one or two pages of documents. Many are for training records of former workers.

So far, Energy Northwest has processed 2,000 documents for the 36 requests it has filled for McCullough Research, said Brent Ridge, Energy Northwest chief financial and risk officer, at the agency's executive board meeting in Pasco last week.

But the request that has Energy Northwest concerned is much larger, encompassing 95,000 to 155,000 documents, according to Energy Northwest.

It asks for all documents -- including computer models, internal documents and emails -- related to an unusual May 2012 deal to take possession of depleted uranium stored by the Department of Energy, according to Energy Northwest.

Energy Northwest paid U.S. Enrichment Corp. about $700 million to enrich the uranium at a 60-year-old Paducah, Ky., plant, which allowed the plant to keep operating longer. Then Energy Northwest offset costs of the purchase by selling some of the fuel to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Energy Northwest has said the deal will save ratepayers money for electricity produced at its nuclear power plant, but Physicians for Social Responsibility believes Energy Northwest may have overpaid.

Robert McCullough of McCullough Research said he's continuing to look at the deal even though his contract with Physicians for Social Responsibility has expired.

Johnson said Physicians for Social Responsibility remains interested in the information McCullough has requested, including documents that show how Energy Northwest became involved in the deal and the discussions held.

McCullough questions whether the Energy Northwest executive board might have been misled about the fuel deal and said the calculations used appear to be inappropriate.

A McCullough Research report issued in January calls the Energy Northwest deal "part of a politically motivated transaction to subsidize the ailing owner of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Enrichment Facility."

The Department of Energy wanted the Paducah plant to remain operating for what appeared to be political reasons and as a result Energy Northwest speculated in future supplies of fuel, McCullough said.

The fuel will not be used by Energy Northwest until 2021 to 2028, but Energy Northwest was interested in what it saw as an unusual opportunity that would allow it to buy fuel at what it determined was a favorable rate and to stabilize fuel prices.

A Newsweek article in January questioned whether the Department of Energy favored the deal to appease Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who had placed holds on DOE nominees, and to retain jobs in his state.

Work could take 2 years

Energy Northwest is using a computer search to find documents that may be covered by the public document request and then staff will review them to see if they are relevant to the request. Next, a legal review will be conducted to black out certain information, such as any personal information or information that is proprietary.

In the case of the depleted uranium purchase, some of the information could be considered proprietary by the Tennessee Valley Authority or U.S. Enrichment Corp. and each must be given a chance to object to its release, according to Energy Northwest.

The purchase required negotiations among agencies and businesses that included the Department of Energy, the Bonneville Power Administration, Energy Northwest, U.S. Enrichment Corp., the Tennessee Valley Authority and consultants, leading to many emails and documents.

But McCullough said much of the work to discover what documents should be excluded from the request could be done by software sold for that purpose, rather than through document-by-document reviews by Energy Northwest employees.

It could search for key words or phrases such as "salary" or "performance appraisal" to flag documents that might need a review for personal information, he said.

He contends that little, if any, information should be proprietary and the software also could flag it.

Energy Northwest made a rough estimate of its costs for the document review by looking at a previous large request by Heart of America Northwest to produce about 4,000 documents. The agency estimated reviewing the documents costs about $14 per document, Ridge said.

If work is done by Energy Northwest's current staff, it would take about two years, he said. But the work could be done faster by hiring more help or an outside firm, he said.

Budget cuts may be needed

That could allow Energy Northwest to respond to most of the request in the current fiscal year without amending its budget, but it would need to make budget cuts in other areas.

That could include limiting travel and training, cutting the hiring and relocation budget or freezing hiring, Ridge said.

Energy Northwest also has looked at trimming other project costs, such as slowing some planning for the refueling outage scheduled for spring 2015 and then accelerating planning in fiscal 2015.

Ignoring the request is not an option, the executive board was told. The University of Washington recently was fined about $700,000 for failing to produce public records, said Energy Northwest attorney Robert Dutton.

Washington has one of the broadest and most far-reaching public records laws of any state, and Energy Northwest has no quarrel with that, Dutton said.

In most cases, Energy Northwest will start a large request for records by contacting the person or agency requesting documents to see if the search can be narrowed.

"McCullough Research has refused any opportunity to refocus their request," Ridge said.

However, the company agreed to narrow another potentially large request for which Energy Northwest has yet to estimate the number of documents that may be involved.

It asked for accounting documents for the past three nuclear plant outages, but then clarified that it only needed those related to fuel, said Marian Kellett, Energy Northwest public records officer.

McCullough said he questions whether Energy Northwest's accounting practices were inappropriate.

w Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service