Energy Northwest faces consequences over incident that exposed workers
The U.S. government is taking steps to prevent future accidents at a nuclear power plant in southeast Washington after federal inspections found low to moderate security risks. The move comes two years after 22 workers were exposed to radioactive material on the job.
They were all given whole-body counts – a screening that determines radiation in the body. These were pipefitters and radworkers – people qualified to work in nuclear power plants.
According to documents from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, during a scheduled refueling outage in May of 2021, workers at the Columbia Generating Station put together a glove bag incorrectly while grinding on a contaminated reactor water pipe.
More documents say Energy Northwest failed to monitor radiation levels in the air where this work was happening.
NRC documents say two workers took up more than 700 millirem each into their bodies. Another worker – a radiation tech – took up 14 millirem. A sharp-eyed Energy Northwest worker — saw that the glove bag was not being used correctly and stopped the job. That worker helped the other workers escape a further dose of radiation, NRC officials confirmed.
Darrell Fisher, a Richland-based nuclear medicine physicist, said both the exposure and the failure to test workers properly after a possible exposure is highly unusual in the industry.
“The methods for assessing an intake of radioactive material are pretty well known, so that the measurements that need to be made, should be made,” Fisher said. “And it would be unusual to not make the measurements that are necessary, to not characterize an intake.”
The NRC issued a so-called white finding to Energy Northwest in June and recently notified the company that it could receive another. A white finding is the second-lowest of NRC’s four-color scale and indicates low to moderate safety significance. Put another way, a white finding is higher than green in safety significance, and lower than yellow and red.
Though Energy Northwest appealed the finding, the company must complete a rigorous inspection by the NRC.
The first NRC white finding was issued June 1 of this year for the exposure incident. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission notified Energy Northwest on Oct. 5th, that it could receive another white finding. That’s because documents say Energy Northwest didn’t take adequate measurements of the radiation in workers — including of their urine and feces.
Energy Northwest has appealed both findings, and the first finding stuck. The second finding is still not finalized. After these findings, Energy Northwest has to complete another rigorous inspection by the NRC. The last time Energy Northwest incurred a white finding was in 2017.