Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Expanded Investigation Into Safety Culture Likely At Columbia Generating Station

Energy Northwest
File photo of the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Washington.

At the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station, a recent anonymous letter has spurred a $150,000 investigation so far into the plant’s performance. The letter was penned by an apparent insider.

It now appears the plant’s executive board members will expand the investigation’s scope and it is likely the probe will dig into employee safety culture.

“Safety culture” basically refers to whether employees at the very highest or the lowest levels feel comfortable to bring forward questions without fear of paybacks. The thought is, it’s often employees closest to the work, or the working parts of a plant, that might spot a problem first.

A spokesman for Energy Northwest, the company that runs the power plant, said employees are encouraged to contact federal regulators -- and that they can speak to managers or write to the company’s board.

Two investigators from Washington, D.C.-based law firm Pillsbury have been at the Columbia Generating Station for days conducting around 50 interviews so far and requesting stacks of documents. Two more investigators are also rifling through the documents in D.C.

Now, some of the plant’s executive board members are asking the law firm to plan a "phase two" of the investigation.

Pillsbury is expected to bring some initial results from their investigation to an Energy Northwest board meeting in March. More information about the safety culture might not be available until April or May.

So far the investigation has cost Energy Northwest $150,000, but that number is anticipated to grow with the possible go-ahead of phase two of the investigation. Also, sub-committee members said on a call Monday that if initial findings indicated problems, there might be a more detailed look or investigation into certain work groups or subsets of employees.

Energy Northwest spokesman Mike Paoli said this is the first investigation of an employee concern that’s risen to this level of scrutiny at the nuclear plant in at least a decade.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.