Energy Northwest board hires independent investigator

Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station operates north of Richland.
Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station operates north of Richland. Tri-City Herald

The Energy Northwest executive board is hiring an outside attorney to investigate allegations in unsigned letters sent in the past few weeks to some board members.

The letters allege information about sub-par performance of the nuclear power plant near Richland is being hidden from Energy Northwest governing boards, employees and the public.

Although unsigned, the letters say they are from a group of unnamed Energy Northwest employees.

“The executive board takes this matter very seriously,” said Sid Morrison, executive board chairman, in a letter sent to employees Thursday.

Operations at the Columbia Generating Station compare poorly to many of the other 98 commercial nuclear power plants in the nation, the letters allege, based on rankings prepared by the nonprofit Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, or INPO.

Energy Northwest is a public agency, but it does not release INPO ratings. It says that all nuclear plants agree that INPO measures are proprietary to ensure the free flow of information among the owners of the reactors.

Energy Northwest officials have signed nondisclosure agreements and are ethically and legally bound to uphold them, said Energy Northwest spokesman John Dobken.

We have seen a steady decline of the index with a return to low levels.

Unsigned letter

The first letter, which is not dated, reminds board members that Energy Northwest was rated as one of two nuclear plants in the nation in greatest need of operational and human performance improvement in 2010.

Its INPO index rating improved as a new leadership team, headed by Mark Reddemann, was put to work. However, the improvement was not sustained, the letter said.

“We have seen a steady decline of the index with a return to low levels,” the letter said, adding that the plant has ranked in the bottom 25 of the nation’s 99 operating commercial reactors since the end of July.

That coincides with the conclusion of a refueling outage that was planned to be longer than usual. Energy Northwest’s intent was to improve productivity long-term, but the longer outage would reduce productivity short-term.

However, the outage had unanticipated consequences. It lasted longer than planned, and the plant was operated at reduced power for several weeks after the outage as a stuck valve was repaired. Index points also were lost because of worker exposure to radiation.

By September, the plant’s INPO rating had dropped to the 85th worst in the nation, the letter said.

Three months later, employees were told it then was ranked among the bottom 25 plants because of two pinhole fuel leaks discovered in the fall, according to the letter.

The letter accuses management of keeping the plant online at all costs, pointing to the decision to continue operating at 65 percent power during the valve repair. Unwanted material that got into the reactor core during the valve repair may have been responsible for the pinhole leaks.

Letter alleges $35,000 Nuclear Regulatory Commission fine stemmed from two guards taking nude photos while on duty.

The letter also addressed the $35,000 fine Energy Northwest paid the Nuclear Regulatory commission, which was unrelated to the outage. The fine was paid after two security officers were found to be inattentive at their posts. The letter said the guards were taking nude photos while on duty.

It also alleged that a security officer was playing a geocaching game on duty. Gamers were invited to attempt to enter a controlled area for the nuclear plant via an online game app.

In another incident, a contractor employee fell from a ladder at the Energy Northwest Industrial Development Complex, suffering multiple broken bones and requiring a stay at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Energy Northwest had been touting a safety record of millions of hours without a lost-time accident. It then switched to touting millions of hours without a lost-time accident at Columbia Generating Station, missing an opportunity to let the organization learn from the accident, the letter said.

The second, brief letter said that no improvements had been made.

The message from management is that the INPO index score does not matter because the plant is producing so much electricity, the letter said. However, the letter alleged that all but seven commercial nuclear plants are better producers based on how close they come to producing at their full capacity.

The outage gained us 30 more megawatts, which means Columbia’s cost of power is now even lower.

John Dobken, Energy Northwest spokesman

The performance data included in the letter does not provide full context, Dobken said. The nuclear industry uses hundreds of measures, from maintenance backlogs to collective radiation exposure to generation targets, he said.

The outage gained the plant 30 more megawatts of generation capacity, which lowers the cost of power production, Dobken said. In December the plant, operating at 100 percent capacity, produced more power than any other month in its 31-year history.

Before the refueling outage, the Columbia Generating Station had generated power for 683 straight days, a goal that only about 5 percent of nuclear plants achieve. “It speaks volumes to equipment reliability,” Dobken said.

After the outage, the plant has operated continuously for more than 200 days. The industry-recognized milestone for continuous operation after an outage is 150 days, he said.

In addition, the plant set a new safety record for an outage with no recordable injuries by Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

The collective radiation dose to workers during the outage was higher than anticipated, however, after checks of piping led to a decision to remove some contaminated pipes. The collective dose to workers was still well below federal safety limits, according to Energy Northwest.

The plant is meeting all Nuclear Regulatory Commission performance goals, and overall has no significant performance issues from the NRC’s perspective, said Victor Dricks, NRC spokesman. It is among 92 of 99 plants that receive the lowest level of inspection because it has no significant performance issues.

The plant rolled out a performance improvement plan in 2011.

“Resident inspectors have seen improvement in the areas of human performance, work planning and risk management,” Dricks said.

However, the plant’s corrective action program continues to have room for improvement and is a focus of the NRC, he said.

We unanimously decided to hire an outside attorney who will independently investigate the charges.

Sid Morrison, Energy Northwest executive board chairman

The board discussed the letters this week in a closed session in Lacey. The senior leadership team of Energy Northwest had a chance to discuss the issues with the board, then the board met without them in the room, according to the letter sent to employees.

A unanimous decision was made to hire an attorney to investigate and to publicly share the results of the investigation, the letter said.

“We intend to accomplish these actions in a reasonably timely manner, balancing a proper sense of urgency that recognizes the seriousness of the concerns, with our commitment to ensure a full and thorough review of all the issues,” the letter said.

The process the board will follow underscores Energy Northwest’s commitment to give employees the right to bring forward concerns with confidence their concerns will be addressed, the letter said.

The decision to hire an attorney to investigate should not be seen as validation of the issues raised in the letters, but the issues should be taken seriously, Dobken said.

Chuck Johnson, representing Oregon and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, attended the Lacey meeting and said he was encouraged that the board took the letter as seriously as it did.

“I hope they will hire someone who truly is independent, who is grounded in nuclear power knowledge,” he said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews