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Workers owed $1M in back wages for Richland nuclear plant work

The Columbia Generating Station, the only nuclear power plant in the Pacific Northwest, is shut down every other year for refueling and maintenance. A subcontractor must pay more than $1 million in back pay to outage workers.
The Columbia Generating Station, the only nuclear power plant in the Pacific Northwest, is shut down every other year for refueling and maintenance. A subcontractor must pay more than $1 million in back pay to outage workers. Energy Northwest

An Energy Northwest subcontractor was ordered to pay more than $1 million in back wages to workers it employed at the nuclear power plant near Richland.

Energy Northwest, the owner and operator of the Columbia Generating Station, has hired Crane Nuclear since 2011 to work on refueling outages at the plant.

In four investigations since then the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries found that the Kennesaw, Ga., firm failed to pay Benton County’s prevailing wages.

Three of the resulting cases are among the five largest prevailing wage cases investigated by the state since 2011, according to L&I.

The state enforces prevailing wage requirements to create an even playing field for businesses and help workers, said Matthew Erlich, spokesman for Labor and Industries.

“Crane has worked in good faith with Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries to ensure employees are accurately paid for the prevailing wage disciplines worked at the Columbia Generating Station nuclear plant,” the company said in a statement.

“It has always been Crane’s intent to pay employees in compliance with all laws and regulations, including Benton County prevailing wages,” it said.

Crane Nuclear pointed out that wage issues have been resolved, and the company, which was not fined, is in good standing with the state.

The state’s report for fiscal 2018, which ended June 30, showed that Crane Nuclear paid nearly $600,000 in back wages that year.

The payments represent the largest amount L&I has collected for workers from a single company in a least a decade, according to the state.

Last November, Crane Nuclear paid 66 workers $254,781 to make good on required prevailing wages for the 2015 refueling outage at the plant north of Richland.

The next month it paid an additional $354,282 to 81 workers on the 2017 refueling outage.

Companies working on construction projects paid for with public funds are required to pay prevailing wages, which are set for each county based on a survey of wages paid there for different job categories.

In the fiscal 2017 case, Crane was hired to do work on valves, including maintenance, inspection and servicing.

When the plant is shut down every other year to change out some of its nuclear fuel and load fresh fuel, Energy Northwest takes advantage of the outage to conduct maintenance work that is difficult or impossible when the plant is operating.

In the 2015 outage, Crane Nuclear paid a blended rate for workers who did multiple tasks, according to L&I. It resulted in workers being paid less than if they were paid the rate for the specific task they were doing, a violation of the prevailing wage law, according to the state.

A long robotic arm reaches down through 70 feet of water to move a spent nuclear fuel bundle inside the open core of Energy Northwests reactor north of Richland. File Tri-City Herald

Crane Nuclear followed a similar practice in 2017, when it was required to pay journey-level plumbers and pipefitters $78.33 an hour, journey-level inside electricians $59.30 and journey-level millwrights $29.22 an hour.

Previous payments to workers for prevailing wage issues included a payment of $473,243 to workers after an investigation closed in 2014 and $75,854 after an investigation closed in 2013.

Energy Northwest said Crane Nuclear is one of only three U.S. companies that perform maintenance on the type of valves used at nuclear power plants. Many of its workers travel from nuclear plant to nuclear plant to do maintenance work.

“We understand that all findings from past audits by the state have been resolved with Crane,” Energy Northwest said in a statement.

“They remain in good standing with the state, and they’re recognized as a nuclear work vendor that helps sustain the rigorous safety and high efficiency of the nuclear fleet,” it said.

In a February letter to Crane Nuclear, L&I recommended that the company take advantage of training available on the state’s prevailing wage law.

If the state determines there are future violations, the company could receive a fine and one or more strikes that could accumulate toward a prohibition on bidding and working on public construction projects in the state.

The Columbia Generating Station is the Pacific Northwest’s only commercial nuclear power plant. It has 1,207 megawatts of gross capacity, which is enough electricity to power a city the size of Seattle.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews