Secretive Industry Group Gives Columbia Nuclear Plant Low Marks

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission isn’t the only organization that has expressed a low regard  for the Columbia Generating Station and its poor performance over the years.

By Paul Koberstein

INPO, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, an industry group, conducted several evaluations of Columbia’s operations over the years. Many of the reviews placed the plant among the worst performers in the nation’s fleet of 100 nuclear power plants.

But neither INPO nor Energy Northwest have ever released to the public any of the group’s reports. INPO, which insists that these documents must be kept confidential, says the reports are its own property and are not to be reproduced or given to anyone else, although some details have trickled out at Energy Northwest Executive Board and Board of Directors meetings.

The following details are taken from the minutes of those meetings, which were obtained by Cascadia Times through an information request under the state of Washington’s Public Records Act.

Energy Northwest, a consortium of 28 Public Utility Districts from around the state, is officially a state agency and legally must comply with requests for the minutes of its meetings. However, it says proprietary documents like those from INPO are exempt from release.

INPO came into existence after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. Its mission is to help nuclear plants help themselves improve their performance, to monitor the performance of nuclear plants, and to identify areas needing attention. INPO performs evaluations on all of the nation’s 100 nuclear plants every two years. Each plant pays $68,000 annual membership dues for the privilege.

The minutes do not provide many specific details about the problems identified in the INPO report, but they do specifically mention the leaky main condenser and the plant’s frequent scrams as among the problem areas that they list. The board minutes show, for example, that INPO found that Columbia’s performance was good in 2000, earning the plant a “very favorable rating.”

But by March 2002 INPO had dropped the rating to “unsatisfactory.” In  2005 an INPO review of the Columbia plant stated that: “… improvements are needed in several key areas, some of which are significant. When compared to ever-improving industry performance, Columbia Generating Station’s overall performance has declined.”

The evaluation also revealed that Columbia’s “goals are good but the level of execution is weak. Managers need to get to the working man’s level and provide monitoring/oversight in order to change habits/culture.” At an April 2005 Energy Northwest board meeting, D. K. Atkinson, a company vice president, of nuclear generation, said that the Columbia plant had become, in INPO’s eyes, a “special assistance plant” requiring with bi-monthly visits from senior INPO personnel.

A “complete plan to address INPO-identified issues must be submitted to INPO and corrective actions implemented,” he said.

Later in 2005, Energy Northwest officials revealed that INPO rated each plant around the country on a scale from 1 (best) to 4 (worst). Columba was one of only 11 plants to receive a 3 rating; only one plant in the US received a 4 rating. The low INPO rating caused Energy Northwest’s liability insurance rates to rise.

Vic Parrish, Energy Northwest’s CEO, expressed his personal “disappointment” with the INPO evaluation team.

At the time, INPO officials had wanted to make a presentation to the Energy Northwest board to present their critical findings, but chose not to “due to the fact that some of the presentation information is proprietary and confidential and the subject material is not covered under Executive Session statutes,” according to an Energy Northwest corporate lawyer, Albert Mouncer.

Nevertheless, INPO wanted to make sure that the Energy Northwest was “aware of the drop in the INPO rating and the seriousness of situation,” and arranged for a small group of Energy Northwest officials to fly to Atlanta, Ga., for the presentation.

A December 2008 INPO evaluation found performance still to be declining at Columbia. The good news, according to Garry Randolph, a member of the Columbia plant’s Nuclear Safety Review Board, an independent advisory panel, was that INPO said that the Columbia plant had shown “a lot of improvement” over the previous couple of years.

But then came the bad news: “However if you look at the industry as a whole, CGS has a long way to go.” Randolph was not an employee of Energy Northwest or a member of its board of directors, but had been asked to serve as an outside member of the safety review board after retiring as chief nuclear officer at the Callaway Nuclear Plant in Missouri.

In December 2009, Randolph said, “original equipment is not in the greatest shape so it is harder to maintain the station.” He said the plant’s problems with environmental monitoring and accreditation renewal were “troubling” to him because they are recurring, making him think that the plant’s Corrective Action Program was not working as effectively as it should be. “This program was implemented to prevent repeat issues; however, failures and performance issues continued to occur,” he said.

In March 2010, W. Scott Oxenford, a senior executive at Columbia on loan from INPO, reported that there had been “a pattern of performance issues that have existed for many years at Columbia,” and several areas remain weak. He said that INPO had conservatively kept the plant at the same rating but that the rating would likely be downgraded in the future.

“There is no way the plant will maintain the same grade,” he said. “Continuous significant improvement during 2010 will be needed in order for the plant to only slip one grade.”

From November 5 to 16, 2012, a six-person team from INPO visited the Columbia plant for another set of evaluations. The team consisted of three INPO staff members and industry peers from Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, Entergy Corp. and Tennessee Valley Authority, Energy Northwest said. Board minutes provided no details about what INPO found.

However, Energy Northwest issued a statement saying that Columbia was no longer on INPO’s list of “special focus plants” as a result of its “noteworthy performance improvements.”

What those improvements were, the statement did not specify, other than to say that INPO had reviewed “our performance  based on what it is today, not where we’ve been. That said, our industry peers recognize we’ve got a long road ahead of us.”

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