Letter questions Energy Northwest training, as investigation results due

The results of the first phase of an investigation into allegations sent to Energy Northwest board members in anonymous letters are expected to be released June 22.
The results of the first phase of an investigation into allegations sent to Energy Northwest board members in anonymous letters are expected to be released June 22. Courtesy Energy Northwest

Millions of dollars were wasted at Energy Northwest on educating workers who did not pass a 2015 exam that followed their training, alleges a new anonymous letter sent as an investigation into other allegations is wrapping up.

Energy Northwest, which operates the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear plant, said it was disappointed in the success rate of that year’s license class to prepare senior reactor operators, but pointed out that employees who took the class are providing value at the plant.

Findings to be released

Energy Northwest is expected to release some of the findings of an independent investigation June 22 by the Pillsbury law firm of Washington, D.C., which was hired to look into allegations made in anonymous letters sent to members of Energy Northwest government boards. Some letters said they were from a group of Energy Northwest employees.

The letters alleged that information about sub-par performance of the nuclear plant near Richland, the Columbia Generating Station, was being withheld from government boards, employees and the public.

Preliminary results released in March on the first phase of the investigation said issues were mostly related to communication, although another anonymous letter disputed whether the communication lapses were unintentional or meant to mislead.

Investigators found a mix of too much data communicated causing confusion in some cases, and some communication that was too little or too late.

There was a sharp decline in performance at the Columbia Generation Station before the letters started arriving, but issues are being addressed and the plant is operating safely, said one of the investigators in March.

Some issues were influenced by the last refueling outage, which was longer than expected, reducing production and exposing outage workers to more radiation than anticipated for the shorter schedule. The plant also operated at reduced power for several weeks after the outage as a stuck valve was repaired.

The second phase of the investigation is looking more broadly at safety culture issues, including whether workers believe they are free to bring issues forward.

Most recent letter

The most recent anonymous letter of criticism said that six of 14 senior reactor operator candidates failed the initial Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed operator exam after their training in 2015.

However, a study done by Energy Northwest of what went wrong in 2015 showed that of the previous five classes, only one candidate in all classes combined failed the test. A chart posted on the NRC website indicated that nationwide, typically 90 percent or more of candidates pass the exam.

The letter called the 2015 training “a failure of management oversight.”

“We invest between $500,000 and $1.5 million in the two-year training process for each potential license candidate,” said the letter. “The failure (of) the six candidates cost the regional ratepayers between $3 million and $9 million.”

Verified cost figures from Energy Northwest were not immediately available Tuesday.

In the 2015 test, six candidates did not obtain a senior reactor operating license, but four of the employees continue to work in the operations department, including as reactor operators. One of the six decided to leave the nuclear industry and another went to another nuclear plant, according to a statement from Energy Northwest.

Energy Northwest conducted an evaluation after the 2015 test and developed plans to improve.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews