Report: Energy Northwest gave board bad information about nuclear plant performance

Windy conditions blow the steam around from the cooling towers at Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station, the Northwest’s only nuclear energy facility, on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in 2015.
Windy conditions blow the steam around from the cooling towers at Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station, the Northwest’s only nuclear energy facility, on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in 2015. Tri-City Herald file

The law firm hired to investigate allegations in four anonymous letters to the Energy Northwest board affirmed the board was given incorrect information about the performance of the Columbia Generating Station north of Richland.

Pillsbury, based in Washington, D.C., presented the findings of the first of its two-part investigation to the Energy Northwest board Wednesday.

Pillsbury’s conclusions are generally friendly to Energy Northwest, though it does validate several of the six major allegations in the letters.

The second phase will address workplace culture issues and is ongoing.

The board received the report, but did not formally accept or concur with Pillsbury’s findings. It voted to make the 80-page document public, but retained attorney-client privilege for drafts, letters, notes and other materials associated with its preparation.

Sid Morrison, chair of the Energy Northwest board, was carefully neutral.

“We asked for an independent investigation. We got it,” he said.

We asked for an independent investigation. We got it.

Sid Morrison, chair, Energy Northwest executive board

The allegation that Energy Northwest misrepresented performance to the board and public was the most damning of the six allegations.

Daryl Shapiro, a partner with Pillsbury, affirmed that Energy Northwest incorrectly told the board that the Columbia Generating Station was operating in the third quartile of the 99 commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S., as ranked by the nonprofit Institute for Nuclear Power Operators. In reality it was operating in the bottom quartile.

The information wasn’t corrected until December, after employees notified the chief executive officer of the error. The institute is an industry information-sharing organization. Its rankings and other data are typically confidential.

Better communications needed

Shapiro said Pillsbury interviewed more than 50 staff members for the first phase.

Pillsbury recommended the board clarify what information it wants regarding the performance of the Columbia Generating Station and when it wants it. Performance data must be clear, consistent and beyond reproach and it should be the same for everyone, he said.

The second allegation centered on the decision to keep producing power at Columbia Generating Station during a valve repair. The letters complained plant managers were committed to keeping the plant operating at all costs. Energy Northwest later discovered two pinhole leaks that some said could have happened during the valve work. Investigations have not definitively linked the fuel leaks to the valve work.

Shapiro said plant managers made a robust, data-driven decision to keep the plant operating. That included using a “challenge board” process that invited employees to challenge the decision and play devil’s advocate.

Pillsbury recommended Energy Northwest communicate more information about the process, because it remains a continuing topic of concern among employees.

The third allegation centered on how Energy Northwest handled an accident that sent a contractor’s employee to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with numerous broken bones. The worker was injured in a fall from a ladder at Energy Northwest’s Industrial Development Center.

Energy Northwest stopped touting its company-wide safety record and took to talking about the millions of hours without a lost-time accident at Columbia Generating Station. The industrial center is located on different property than the generating station.

Pillsbury concluded the accident was reported to employees, but noted the CEO did not mention it in meetings with public utility district officials.

Pillsbury recommended the board review the incident and adopt consistent reporting standards. Safety data and worker compensation data need to be aligned, it said.

Executive travel

The fourth allegation centered on the travel schedules for the chief executive officer and chief nuclear officer. Both were frequently out of town during critical periods.

Pillsbury confirmed they were out of town for large portions of the 51-day outage and were reachable by phone.

“We think they should have been on site more,” Shapiro said.

We think they should have been on site more.

Daryl Shapiro, partner, Pillsbury law firm

Pillsbury said the board has given the chief nuclear officer, Brad Sawatzke, numerous responsibilities that require him to travel. That needs to be better communicated. Pillsbury recommended the board clarify that it expects senior executives to be present during critical periods.

Pillsbury largely dismissed the fifth allegation, which centers on employee access to the electronic calendars of both the CEO and the chief nuclear officer. The calendars are not available. Pillsbury said that is appropriate and made no recommendations.

The final allegation centered on a $35,000 fine levied by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency following a series of security incidents, including two inattentive guards and an employee who was operating an online geocaching game that encouraged players to access Energy Northwest property via an app.

Pillsbury said the company’s response was appropriate, though it erred when it did not immediately alert the board to the geocaching incident. It recommended the board clarify its expectations around reporting possible security breaches.

Pillsbury dismissed allegations that the chief nuclear officer used a March draft of its report to identify the authors of the anonymous letters and to have them arrested. Shapiro said no draft of the report existed at that time and there was no reason to believe the threats were made.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

Related stories from Tri-City Herald