August 16, 2009 in Business

Company’s background checks at forefront of nuclear security

Spokane Valley’s Pinnacle verifies credentials of workers at reactors
By The Spokesman-Review

Ryan Brewer stands outside “the Vault,” a secure records file room with limited access at Pinnacle Investigations. The room stores “personal information on subjects that we’ve done background information on for nuclear plant workers,” he said.
(Full-size photo)

Nuclear reactors are anything but radioactive for Pinnacle Investigations.

Each time one shuts down for maintenance, as they must every 18 months, the Spokane Valley company conducts background checks on every worker – carpenter, boilermaker, electrician – who will enter the plant, said Ryan Brewer, who is responsible for business development.

If an employment form claims a stint in the military, he said, Pinnacle verifies. Credit history, education and references? All checked.

“They need to know where you’ve been every day,” Brewer said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sets some criteria, he said, and individual companies may add their own “knock-outs.”

A criminal record does not necessarily shut the gates, he noted.

The faster those checks can be completed, and workers get to their tasks, the faster the reactors can be restarted, Pinnacle Manager Sabrina Sawyer said.

Every day a reactor is off-line costs a utility as much as $1 million, she said, adding that about 15 percent of workers do not pass muster.

Sawyer said Pinnacle can complete its investigations in two days, beating most competition and generating ever more business for Pinnacle as a result.

Plant employees get the same scrutiny, Brewer said.

Since opening that line of business four years ago with examinations done for the Columbia Generating Station at Hanford, Sawyer said Pinnacle has secured contracts with 21 nuclear plant owners. Word about Pinnacle’s capabilities traveled fast through the close-knit nuclear industry, he said.

Brewer, the son of Pinnacle founder Sandy Brewer, joined the business last year. Although he earned a degree in business, most recently he worked as a youth pastor in Las Vegas and Port Angeles, Wash.

Sawyer was hired as a receptionist after years in marketing, mostly in home finance. Within a week she was doing nuclear industry checks, then moved to the criminal side of Pinnacle’s work.

“I have a weird curiosity for this stuff,” she said.

Pinnacle also investigates workers’ compensation claims, domestic violence and child custody cases, and does background checks for 400 corporate clients, said Brewer, adding that churches have also become clients.

On a recent trip to Southern California, he attended conventions for church administrators and the nuclear industry.

Brewer said Pinnacle signed contracts with 13 new clients in July.

He said Pinnacle is ramping up employment to about 50 to handle the new business and the fall’s reactor shutdowns, which coincide with a seasonal decline in electricity demand.

The company tries to retain the best of the workers brought in to handle the temporary work load, he said.

Job applicants get the same scrutiny demanded by Pinnacle clients, said Sawyer, adding that candidates with legal or law enforcement backgrounds have a head start.

“The learning curve here is pretty steep,” Brewer said.

Sawyer said Pinnacle works with 40 percent of the nuclear plant owners in the U.S. and would like to build that to 100 percent, although not with exclusivity.

The company can turn its investigations quickly because it has direct Internet access to court records in almost two-thirds of the nation’s 3,141 counties, parishes or equivalent jurisdictions, she said. Where that’s not possible – some counties still use only paper – Pinnacle uses 80 “court runners” to make the checks in person.

“When we say real-time document, we mean it,” Sawyer said.

Brewer said competitors who undercut Pinnacle rates for background checks rely on less-timely databases that compile records from only a fraction of all counties. Many would-be clients do not know the difference, he said.

“Lack of knowledge is our competition,” Brewer said.

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