Energy Northwest nuclear plant scores low in reliability

RICHLAND — Energy Northwest's nuclear power plant near Richland has been rated as one of two nuclear plants in the nation that are in greatest need of operational and human performance improvement.

New chief executive Mark Reddemann sent that message to employees Monday after a briefing Friday by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. The nonprofit INPO, paid for by the nuclear industry, does inspections of the nation's 104 nuclear power plants every two years.

Problems occurred primarily in 2009 when the Columbia Generating Station had a series of scrams, or unplanned shutdowns. The scrams started with one in late 2008, followed by five more through November 2009.

The plant has been operating reliably with no scrams for almost a year, said Rochelle Olson, Energy Northwest spokeswoman. The INPO evaluation covered plant operations from October 2008 to September 2010.

"The messages INPO delivered were not unexpected," Reddemann told employees in a memo. "While we are operating the plant safely, improvements are needed in a wide range of areas."

Deficiencies found, however, create increased vulnerability for a significant event such as an equipment failure that would cause the plant to be automatically shut down, according to Energy Northwest.

The evaluation found weaknesses in human performance, leadership and equipment reliability.

"INPO found consistently that Columbia leaders are not demonstrating and holding employees accountable to high performance standards," Reddemann said in his message. "As a result, they observed workers frequently not adhering to several plant standards, and workers and supervisors making decisions to accept risk without leveraging the organization to understand the scope and significance of issues."

Vice presidents, managers and supervisors are expected to have a clear understanding of expectations, communicate them and spend time in the field demonstrating zero tolerance for deviations from plant standards, Reddemann said in the message.

"Every time we see a deviation is a time to stop, point it out and coach on proper behaviors," he wrote.

In addition, all employees are expected to ask questions about activities that are under way, Olson said.

Energy Northwest earlier had started a "Pride in Performance" initiative to improve performance, and INPO had found it to be comprehensive. However, INPO concluded plant leaders have not used it effectively to change behavior at the plant, according to Reddemann.

Reddemann is continuing to use the Pride in Performance initiative, but is aggressively inserting his leadership to drive expectations, Olson said.

Leadership also needs to fully understand how degraded equipment affects safety and reliability, Reddemann said.

"We have not stressed the need to properly validate important information that affects key decisions or assess potential consequences," he wrote.

The record of no scrams in 2010 indicates plant reliability has improved, Olson said. Energy Northwest expects continued improvement as maintenance is conducted during its refueling outage in the coming spring and the plant's main condenser is replaced, she said.

The condenser is being replaced at a cost of $113 million. However, some of the cost will be offset by improved efficiency that is expected to allow an increase of about 12 megawatts of electricity generation. The plant generates more than 1,100 megawatts, which is enough to provide electricity for more than 1 million homes.

The condenser turns steam generated by boiling water in the nuclear reactor back into water for re-use after useable energy is extracted by the main turbine.

Reddemann was picked in August to lead Energy Northwest, which has a hydroelectric project, solar station and wind project in addition to the nuclear power plant.

He since has picked a new chief nuclear officer, Brad Sawatzke, who starts work Dec. 6 to replace Scott Oxenford. It's the top position at the Columbia Generating Station.

Sawatzke was director of site operations at the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant in Minnesota. It's an Xcel Energy project, and Reddemann was the former vice president of operational support with Xcel Energy.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also has had concerns with Energy Northwest's performance. It had placed Energy Northwest on a list of 29 plants receiving heightened oversight because of the 2008 and 2009 scrams.

However, the NRC removed Energy Northwest from its list in July.