Obstruction of Injustice: Columbia Generating Station Whitewash

, former director, Nuclear Safety Project | August 8, 2018, 6:00 am EDT
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There’s been abundant talk recently about obstruction of justice—who may or may not have impeded this or that investigation. Rather than chime in on a bad thing, obstruction of justice, this commentary advocates a good thing—obstruction of injustice. There’s an injustice involving the Columbia Generating Station in Washington that desperately needs obstructing.

Raising the White Flag

The NRC dispatched a Special Inspection Team to the Columbia Generating Station in Richland, Washington in late 2016 after a package containing radioactive materials was improperly shipped from the plant facility to an offsite facility. The NRC team identified nine violations of federal regulations for handling and transport of radioactive materials, the most serious warranting a White finding in the agency’s Green, White, Yellow, and Red classification scheme. This White finding moved the Columbia Generating Station into Column 2 of the Reactor Oversight Process’s Action Matrix in the first quarter of 2017.

Columbia Generating Station would remain in Column 2 until the first of two things happened: (1) the NRC determined that the problems resulting in the improper transport of radioactive materials were found and fixed justifying a return to Column 1, or (2) additional problems were identified that warranted relocation into Columns 3 or 4.

Check that: There’s a third thing that happened to improperly transport Columbia Generating Station back into Column 1—the injustice that needed obstructing.

Raising the Whitewash

After the plant owner notified the NRC that the causes of the radioactive material mishandling had been cured, the NRC sent a team to the site in late 2017 to determine if that was the case. On January 30, 2018, the NRC reported that its investigation confirmed that the problems had been resolved and returned the Columbia Generating Station to Column 1 and routine regulatory oversight after closing out the White finding.

In response, an NRC staffer submitted a Differing Professional Opinion (DPO) contending “that the decision to close the WHITE finding was not supported by the inspection report details.” The DPO originator provided two dozen very specific reasons for the contention.

The NRC formed a three-person panel to investigate the DPO. The DPO Panel issued its report on June 28, 2018, to the Regional Administrator in NRC Region IV (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 (Source: Unkown)

The DPO recommended that the NRC either re-open the WHITE finding or revise the January 30, 2018, report to include an explanation for why it was closed even though the problems resulting in the WHITE finding had not been remedied.

In other words, the DPO Panel agreed with the contention raised by the DPO originator. En route, the DPO Panel substantiated 20 of the 24 specific reasons provided by originator.

Detailing the Whitewash

On July 21, 2017, another DPO Panel released a report validating 18 concerns raised by the DPO originator with how the NRC allowed Palo Verde Unit 3 to continue operating with a broken backup power generator far longer than permitted by the law, established policies, and common sense. Despite agreeing with essentially every concern raised by the DPO originator in that case, the DPO Panel somehow concluded the NRC had properly let Palo Verde continue to operate.

This time, the DPO Panel also agreed with the DPO originator’s concerns and also agreed with the DPO originator’s conclusion that the NRC had acted improperly. To quote the DPO Panel:

…the Panel concluded that NRC Inspection Report 05000397/2017-011, dated January 30, 2018 (ML18032A754), does not depict all the bases to support the conclusion that the objectives of the IP [inspection procedure] were met and thus does not support closure of the WHITE finding.”

A common thread among the DPO originator’s concerns was the Root Cause Evaluation (RCE) developed by the plant owner for the problems resulting in the WHITE finding. The RCE’s role is to identify the causes for the problems. Once the causes are identified, appropriate remedies can be applied. When the RCS identifies the wrong cause(s) and/or fails to identify all the right causes, the remedies cannot be sufficient. Through interviews with NRC staff involved in the inspection and its review of materials collected during the inspection, the DPO Panel reported “… a belief by the 95001 inspection team and other NRC staff with oversight of this inspection that the licensee’s written root cause evaluation (RCE), even in its seventh revision, was poorly written and lacked documentation of all the actions taken in response to this event.”

In case this verbiage was too subtle, the DPO Panel later wrote that “… the licensee’s “documented” RCE was grossly inadequate, which was confirmed through interviews by the Panel” [emphasis added].

And the DPO Panel stated “… the root cause evaluation could not have been focused on the right issue and the resulting corrective actions may not be all inclusive.”

Later the DPO Panel reported “… it is not clear how the inspectors concluded that what the licensee did was acceptable.”

A few paragraphs later, the DPO Panel stated “…the Panel could not understand the rationale for finding the licensee’s extent of condition review appropriate.”

A few more paragraphs later, the DPO panel reported “What appears confusing is that interviewees told the Panel that the licensee’s written RCE was grossly inadequate, yet the inspectors were able to accept it as adequate, without requiring the licensee to address the discrepancies through a revised RCE.”

Later on that page, “The Panel found that the report does not discuss the licensee’s corrective actions.” The inspection team found the root cause evaluation “grossly inadequate” and did not even mention the corrective actions the RCE was supposed to trigger.

The DPO Panel reported “… the inspectors concluded that the licensee met the inspection objectives of IP 95001. However, this appears to the Panel to be a leap of (documentation) faith that appears counter to the inspection requirements and guidance of IP 95001 as well as IMC [inspection manual chapter] 0611.”

Still not out of bricks, the DPO Panel concluded “It is difficult to imagine that the licensee’s definition of the problem statement, extent of condition and cause, and corrective actions are appropriate.”

The DPO Panel also stated “…the Panel can only conclude that the 95001 report justified closure of the WHITE finding based on significant verbal information that was not contained in the final RCE and not discussed in the 95001 report.”

That’s contrary to the NRC’s purported Principles of Good Regulation—Independence, Openness, Efficiency, Clarity, and Reliability, unless they are like a menu and Region IV is on a diet skipping some of the items.

As noted above, these findings led the DPO Panel to recommend that the NRC either re-open the WHITE finding or revise the January 30, 2018, report to explain why it was closed even though the problems resulting in the WHITE finding had not been remedied. So far, the NRC has done neither.

UCS Perspective

This situation is truly appalling. And that’s an understatement.

The NRC identified nine violations of federal regulatory requirements in how this plant owner was handling and transporting radioactive materials. Not satisfied by this demonstrated poor performance, the NRC properly issued a WHITE finding and moved the reactor into Column 2 of the ROP’s Action matrix where additional regulatory oversight was applied.

By procedure and standard practice, the WHITE finding is to remain open until a subsequent NRC inspection determines its cause(s) to have been identified and corrected.

Yet, the NRC inspectors found the root cause evaluation by the owner to be “grossly inadequate.”

And the NRC inspectors did not mention the corrective actions taken in response to the “grossly inadequate” root cause evaluation.

So, the NRC closed the WHITE finding—an injustice plain and simple as amply documented by the DPO Panel.

Where’s obstruction of injustice when it’s needed?

The DPO Panel found it “difficult to imagine” that the plant owner’s efforts were appropriate without “a leap of faith.” This is not like fantasy football, fantasy baseball, or fantasy NASCAR. Fantasy nuclear safety regulation is an injustice to be obstructed. If NRC Region IV wants to go to Fantasyland, I’ll consider buying them a ticket to Disneyland. (One-way, of course.)

The NRC’s Office of the Inspector General should investigate how the agency wandered so far away from its procedures, practices, and purported principles.

The NRC Chairman, Commissioners, and senior managers should figure out what is going terribly awry in NRC Region IV. If for no other reason than to obstruct Region IV’s injustices from corrupting the other NRC regions.

Americans deserve obstruction of injustice when it comes to nuclear safety, not fantasy nuclear safety regulation.

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  • Mike Mulligan

    Why isn’t this NRC behavior illegal and people openly fired for cause.