Energy Northwest workers routinely raise issues to ensure the nuclear power plant near Richland operates safely, according to investigation results released Monday evening following an executive board meeting in Seattle.
“There does not appear to be a systemic chilled work environment at Columbia Generating Station,” said the report covering the second phase of an investigation into anonymous allegations raised about operations at the plant.
But Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, the law firm hired to conduct the investigation, still found room for improvement.
“Pillsbury found that multiple work groups at Columbia have problems that, if left unaddressed, could result in a chilled work environment,” the latest report said. The plant employs about 1,100.
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Concerns ranged from certain managers accused of behaving in an intimidating manner to a work group with a heavy workload that left employees concerned they might miss an issue.
Pillsbury was hired by Energy Northwest’s executive board in January to look into anonymous letters that accused management of hiding subpar performance of its plant from government boards, employees and the public.
A first phase of the investigation looked at allegations in four letters, with findings that were generally friendly to Energy Northwest, but that validated several of the six major allegations in the letter. The issues did not prevent the plant from operating safely, investigators said.
Our findings align with what we typically expect to see at other nuclear plants across the nation.
Daryl Shapiro, partner at Pillsbury law firm
The second phase of the investigation, with results released Monday, took a broader look at workplace culture and whether workers believed they could raise safety, quality and other issues without fear of retaliation.
“Our findings align with what we typically expect to see at other nuclear plants across the nation,” said Daryl Shapiro, a partner in the law firm, in a statement released by Energy Northwest after the meeting.
The law firm interviewed nearly 200 employees from 10 work groups in its investigation.
“Our employees are nearly unanimous in stating their willingness to raise concerns and in their positive assessments of the work environment,” Sid Morrison, Energy Northwest Executive Board chairman, said in a statement.
Among the findings related to specific work groups was a recommendation that certain managers be coached on appropriate behaviors.
Some complaints were made to investigators of managers who made demeaning or sarcastic comments and other intimidating behavior, including yelling or screaming. The examples were not indicative of the majority of plant management, but management behavior must remain beyond reproach, the report said.
Some employees interviewed were critical of how concerns were handled involving potentially harmful chemicals during a corporate office refurbishment.
Any inconsistency between internal and external reporting could lead skeptical employees to believe that management is trying to mislead stakeholders.
Phase II investigation report
The plant did not have appropriate equipment on hand to analyze the level of exposure, the investigative report said. Energy Northwest is taking steps to ensure an industrial hygienist is on call in the future.
In another instance, a plant manager took a personnel action without necessarily having all the facts or perceived facts available, the report said. The manager now agrees the situation could have been better handled.
The report also identified some broader issues. The Employee Concerns Program should continue to increase its visibility, the report said. Formal exit interviews should be done with employees leaving the agency to gather information on concerns and issues.
Energy Northwest also could improve its communication on plant performance.
Internal communication may focus on areas that need improvement, but communication should be more balanced, the investigation report said.
“It is inconsistent to publicly tell the world how well the plant is performing and report only or mostly negative information internally,” it said. “Any inconsistency between internal and external reporting could lead skeptical employees to believe that management is trying to mislead stakeholders.”
Anonymous letters about Energy Northwest’s performance have continued to be sent, but Morrison said he is confident that any concerns raised in future letters can be handled through processes provided by Energy Northwest or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The executive board hopes that the individuals who raised concerns, and whose anonymity was respected throughout the investigation, will become more comfortable with raising concerns through the agency’s internal programs, Morrison said. They include the Employee Concerns Program, the Ask Senior Management program, a corrective action program and the ability to contact the NRC.
He said the executive board will continue to review findings of the investigation and periodically review actions taken in response.