Columbia Plant Frequently Violates Federal Nuclear Safety Rules

The Columbia Generating Station never had a better year than 2012. The Northwest’s only nuclear power plant recorded the second highest amount of electricity produced in a single calendar year: 9.7 million megawatt-hours. It also went the longest amount of time without an emergency shutdown: 3 years, 2 months and counting. And it secured a 20-extension of its operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“Performance was exemplary,” CGS Chief Nuclear Officer Brad Sawatzke gushed to Energy Northwest’s Executive Board in January 2013.

By Paul Koberstein

But from the standpoint of public safety, 2012 was just another troubling year at the Columbia Generating Station. During the year, the plant committed 23 violations of federal safety regulations, more than in any single year since 2000. The plant did even worse in 2013, when the NRC found 25 violations through the first eight months of the year. This continued a trend that saw the plant’s total number of violations increase steadily over the years, as the chart on this page shows.

Only eight nuclear plants in the US were cited more often for safety violations from 2010 to 2012, according to a recent analysis by the US General Accounting Office, as we will see in Part 9.

One of the violations in 2012 was among the most serious in its history. The violation actually existed for more than 11 years. In April 2000 when workers at the plant miscalibrated a radiation warning monitor that had been installed to warn the public in the event of a major radiation release. The monitor remained miscalibrated until the plant corrected the mistake in August 2011.

Figure 1. The number of violations of federal safety rules at the Columbia Generating Station has been increasing since 2000, as indicated by the colored line. The plant has violated NRC rules 208 times since 2000 and has one of the worst safety records in the industry, as measured by the number and type of violations. 2013 figure is for January-August only. Source: 2000-2012 data, US General Accounting Office. 2013 data: Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection reports.

If a major accident had occurred during that time, the public might have not have been alerted in a timely manner, said NRC Spokesman Victor Dricks. The NRC was not happy, to say the least. “Our issue … was that the detector only operated 40 percent of the time over more than 10 years,” Dricks said.

But the NRC may also deserve some of the blame. Its inspectors had checked the calibrations on the monitor several times from 2000-2011 but they, too, had failed to detect the flaw.

The failure to properly maintain the radiation monitor led the NRC to issue three major citations plus one minor citations against the plant. Among them was Energy Northwest’s failure to report the miscalibration until long after the utility discovered it. The utility detected the mistake in August 2011 but said nothing about it until the following June. NRC rules require plants to reveal the discovery of such mistakes within eight hours, not eight months.

The NRC thought about issuing a civil penalty of $70,000 for the violation. But because the Columbia Generating Station had been the subject of no enforcement actions within the previous two years, it decided to propose no fine. However, it warned that “significant violations in the future could result in a civil penalty.”

In recent years, the Columbia plant has had more trouble steering clear of safety violations than most other reactors in the US. Only eight of 100 reactors in the US had more violations from 2010 to 2012 than Columbia, according to an October 2013 report from the US General Accounting Office.

Perhaps the most troubling of Columbia’s violations involved the plant’s occasional disregard for the NRC’s common-sense earthquake-safety rules. The NRC deems these violations to have been minor, because they didn’t occur at the same time as an actual earthquake. But with a little bad luck, some of these minor violations could have led to disaster. These were violations of rules that were designed to ensure that nuclear plants are as safe as possible during an earthquake, when the plant’s margin of error is at its slimmest. Plants that violate earthquake-safety rules are flirting with disaster.

The violations seem all the more foolish in light of recent revelations that the Hanford area surrounding the Columbia plant could be jolted by a tremor that’s eight times stronger than what the plant was originally designed to withstand, based on USGS geological data that was first reported in October 2013 by the Seattle Times.

In the 1970s Columbia Generating Station was designed to withstand a quake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, But geologists today say a much stronger quake of 7.5 is possible. The plant’s structures were not designed to survive such a jolt.

From 2000-2013 the NRC cited the  plant 10 times for violating earthquake safety rules. Such violations are worrisome. A giant earthquake and tsunami are famous for triggering a serious accident in 2011 at Fukushima, but the plant’s failure to protect its backup power supply played a major role. Could a similar problem occur at Columbia? Consider, for example:

In August 2011 NRC inspectors found unsecured bookcases, rolling metal ladders, and loose maintenance carts in the main control room, where they could tip over and damage some important control knobs.  In addition, two 55 gallon barrels were placed near a piece of safety equipment called the “high pressure core spray pump.” The NRC said called it an “overturning hazard”  that could have disabled the pump. This pump could be needed to cool the reactor core in an earthquake.

In October 2002 NRC inspectors discovered an improperly stored vehicle-mounted work platform, commonly called a “man-lift,” a few feet from control panels.  The inspectors determined that the 7-foot tall man-lift “could have tipped against sensitive control room panels during a seismic event, or other disturbance,” and battered the control boxes, an NRC inspection report said. Such a jolt could have disrupted circuits within the panel and possibly caused a reactor scram, or emergency shutdown of the reactor, it added.

Additional seismic violations were found in 2002, 2003,  2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009.

The NRC classifies most safety violations as “Green,” meaning that they have “very low safety or security significance,” but that does not mean they have no significance. The NRC considers all violations to be significant, whether they are large or small, based on the theory that small fires can become major conflagrations if they aren’t addressed properly.

Federal law allows the NRC to issue fines of up to $120,000 per day. In 2005 it imposed one of its most severe civil penalties when it levied a fine of $5.4 million against the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo, Ohio, for a series of major safety violations.

The NRC issued two white (major) violations against CGS in 2006 and 2009 for the large number of scrams at the plant (for more on scrams, see Chapter 4). From July 2004 to June 2005 the plant was scrammed five times. It scrammed another six times from August 2008 to November 2009. The NRC deems anything more than 3 scrams to be a safety problem if they all occur within 7,000 hours of each other, a span of almost 42 weeks.

The radiation monitor miscalibration from 2000-2011 resulted In two white violations, one green violations, and one Severity III violation, which is levied after a “serious incident.”

The only yellow (serious) violation ever issued against CGS was in 2001 for the failure to properly implement its emergency preparedness plan. The plant has never received a red citation, which is given only for the most serious violations

Very few violations at the plant have attracted much public attention. Most have dealt with important but mundane items like failures to properly maintain pumps, digital equipment, breakers and starter coils, and to properly follow fire protection procedures.

Occasionally, a violation has involved security precautions, such as a failure to pass a car bomb test on March 7, 2003, just two weeks before the United States invasion of Iraq and about 18 months after September 11, 2001. Three inspectors, including a senior physical security Inspector, arrived to check whether the plant was effectively implementing an NRC order issued in February 2002 calling for extra security at nuclear plants due to a perceived terrorist threat. During the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the entire country was under a heightened security alert. Everyone was on their toes, except apparently the security force at the Columbia Generating Station.

The NRC hasn’t fully disclosed what happened during the inspection, but did allow some details to dribble out in a single two-page report that was released to the public. This report revealed that the inspectors conducted an inspection involving some type of “vehicle bomb,” but offered no specific information about the bomb test, other than the Columbia plant failed certain aspects involving:

•             a test of “hostage and duress situations;”

•             a requirement to maintain continuous patrols in a controlled area; and

•             the control of the “generic use of passwords.”

The NRC’s Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response later investigated these security breaches, but has released no information about how that investigation turned out.

The Columbia plant has had trouble following NRC safety rules longer than it has been in operation. Historical documents that date from the time Energy Northwest was still known as the Washington Public Power Supply System show that the NRC was already highly critical of the plant’s shoddy construction before it opened in 1984. It gave the plant low marks for poor construction practices and cited the plant for cutting corners on maintenance and repair projects.

For example, in June 1980, the NRC issued a devastating critique of work that had already been completed, and expressed doubts that future work would be adequate. It found 33 violations, infractions and deficiencies. A letter from the NRC’s Regional Evaluation Review Board recommended “strong measures” were needed to ensure that “previously completed safety-related work was properly accomplished, and that current and future work is adequately controlled.” The NRC said an “escalated enforcement action” including civil penalties were under review at NRC headquarters.

The NRC said a safety wall, pipe restraints, pipe welds and pipe supports were some of the items that were “seriously deficient.” The safety wall had a large void on the inside which WPPSS’ quality-assurance inspectors had failed to notice. In one inspection, about 12 percent of pipe welds were found to be defective. In a later inspection, 12 percent of the welds were still found to be defective. The NRC also called for better training of the workforce in light of the “repetitive nature of several items of non-compliance in the last year.”

An NRC report in 1982 said that WPPSS “appears to show a lack of thoroughness in responding to the original NRC concern with shield wall adequacy. Repair of these defective welds has not yet been undertaken nor has the repair of the concrete void areas inside the shield wall.”

That month, the WPPSS hired Robert Ferguson to take over as its managing director, and the NRC began to notice some improvement. Ferguson instituted a number of changes, causing the NRC to remark: “The results to date appear promising.”

However, the NRC’s opinion of Ferguson’s leadership soon soured. In January 1983, an NRC official wrote in a memo that Ferguson had responded to criticisms with some “word engineering” to defend his position without taking any new actions.

In 1982, the NRC assessed WPPSS a $61,000 civil penalty for several safety violations.

“The nature of their response was exceptionally argumentative and did not provide an adequate response to certain issues such as procedural compliance,” the NRC said. “Their response has a touch of Alice-in-Wonderland to it which defies understanding. Their management activities do not give us confidence that they have grasped the issues and formulated plants to deal with the issues effectively.”

In 1983, the NRC issued WPPSS a 30-year license to operate the plant.

In the 1990s WPPSS officials realized it needed to be “jolted out of a long-held culture of complacency,” wrote historian Gary Miller, author of the Supply System’s self-published history, “Energy Northwest,” published in 2000.

“Before the Supply System could regain regional acceptance, it had to change organizational behavior,” he wrote. “In the first half of the 1990s, the jolts came in a flurry. First the Supply System had to face the fact that (the Columbia plant) had settled into an existence as a mediocre nuclear plant as a result of mediocre management practices.”

In 1993, the Supply System’s new managing director, William Counsil, said the plant’s management team was “sorely out of touch with new developments in the industry,” which he said led to one of the “lousiest performances” of any nuclear plant in the country.

After the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, the NRC placed a priority on operator training at nuclear power plants. It has said that “a combination of equipment failures and operator error led to a partial melting of the fuel in Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island complex.”

The NRC said poor training of workers had been a serious problem at the Columbia plant and contributed to its poor performance. Starting in April 1990 plant operators began failing the NRC’s worker qualification tests, and in 1991, more failed. The NRC refused to allow workers who failed the tests to work at the plant until they took remedial classes and passed the exam.

As a result, the Supply System managers found difficulty putting together crews with a sufficient number of qualified personnel. They stretched safety by asking the qualified workers to put in longer hours. At times, some workers worked 12 hour shifts. At other times, management couldn’t round up enough qualified workers to legally operate the plant.

The problem became so serious that The Oregonian newspaper remarked in an editorial, “If utility officials can neglect something as crucial as training operators to respond to emergencies, what other safety details have escaped them?”

In April 1992, another WPPSS crew flunked a test. A worried WPPSS official predicted in the media at the time that any further failures on tests could be the “last straw” that forces the NRC to shut the plant down. The company feared that there was “a high probability” that more operators would fail more exams later in the year.

As predicted, the workers failed their tests, and the NRC shut down the plant for six months. Ivan Selin, then the NRC chairman, “I cannot exaggerate how bad it is to have operator problems,” he told the Associated Press. “It’s an indicator of bad management and poor performance. It shows smugness and misplaced confidence.”

“If they want to operate, they have to show us they’re going to do it safely,” said Tom Meadows, an NRC licensing examiner told the Tri-Cities Herald. “They’re not starting up until we have no doubt they are operating safely both mechanically and with proper personnel. We don’t care about dollars or how much money they’re losing.”

The repeated failures of workers to pass qualifying tests was just one of WPPSS’ labor problems. Their failure to take their jobs seriously was another. In June 1994, two workers wearing ski masks drove around in a secured area in a golf cart, in the presence of armed guards.

“Any horseplay like this is totally unacceptable,” said WPPSS spokesman George Tupper.

A few months later, the nuclear plant pranksters struck again. In this incident, workers tied up a colleague with duct tape, shoved a pie in his face and poured lotion down his pants. Apparently, workers in the maintenance department had a tradition of ambushing new members. The NRC was not amused.

The incident came soon after a plant-wide meeting to discuss appropriate behavior. Later, one worker was fired and four others were disciplined.

The NRC summoned WPPSS officials to a meeting at its regional offices in Texas. “The NRC just does not look kindly on utilities where there are repetitions of behavior of this type,” a WPPSS spokesman said.

The NRC gave the plant its lowest acceptable rating in 1992. “The licensee showed a tendency to rationalize shortcomings,” the NRC said. “This was best illustrated by senior management’s initial reluctance to accept NRC’s conclusion of poor operator performance during licensed operator requalification examinations.”

In 1999, WPPSS met the NRC’s challenges in part by relying on an old standby, word engineering. The name of the nuclear plant, originally Hanford 2 and later Washington Nuclear 2 or WNP-2, became the “Columbia Generating Station,” perhaps so no one would notice it makes electricity with nuclear reactors. The company rejected such alternative suggestions as “Chinook,” “Rattlesnake Ridge,” “Whiskey Dick Mountain,” “Horse Thief Lake,” and “Dixy Lee Ray.”

And WPPSS renamed itself “Energy Northwest,” and asked the public to no longer refer to it as “whoops,” its old nickname. As University of Oregon historian Daniel Pope noted in an essay in the Seattle Times, the company always hated the sound of the acronym. But given the plant’s continuing troubles with safety, the old nickname still seems to fit.

Scroll to Top