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Wednesday, February 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Washington

Richland nuclear plant cited for safety violation over waste shipment

In this April 8, 2003, file photo, steam rises from Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station, Washington state’s only nuclear power plant, near Richland. (Jackie Johnston / Associated Press)
In this April 8, 2003, file photo, steam rises from Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station, Washington state’s only nuclear power plant, near Richland. (Jackie Johnston / Associated Press)
By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued a “white” violation finding against the nuclear power plant near Richland related to a November radioactive waste shipping incident.

A white finding has low to moderate safety significance and will lead to an additional NRC inspection to make sure issues have been corrected.

The NRC evaluates regulatory performance at commercial nuclear power plants with a color-coded process that classifies findings as either green, white, yellow or red in order of increasing safety significance.

Energy Northwest’s plant, the Columbia Generating Station, could return to routine NRC oversight in six months. The white finding moved it to the second of four levels of oversight, with the first level being routine oversight.

The NRC announced it was considering the white finding in April, but gave Energy Northwest a chance to discuss the issue at a May regulatory conference.

NRC remained apparently unswayed by information from the conference and notified Energy Northwest on Thursday that it has issued a white finding. Energy Northwest, which operates the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant, has the option of appeal.

Several mistakes were made leading up to the incident in November, in which radioactive waste was not correctly packaged as it was trucked to a commercial disposal site at the Hanford nuclear reservation, according to an earlier NRC report.

The Washington state Department of Health barred the Columbia Generating Station from sending waste to the US Ecology disposal site until April, when it gave conditional approval to resume shipments. In June full privileges were restored, said Energy Northwest spokesman John Dobken.

In November a 7-foot-tall, 45,000-pound cask of waste was trucked to the US Ecology site. It was approved for transporting waste with about half of the radioactivity the cask actually contained.

US Ecology surveyed the cask for radiation and rejected it after determining radiation was seven times greater than the shipping manifest for the package declared, according to Energy Northwest.

The NRC investigation found that the issue started in 2010 when some contaminated items, including filters from routine vacuuming of the used fuel pool, were not properly labeled or inventoried.

A second error occurred when radiation surveys were improperly recorded as the radiation measured on contact, when it was actually a lower level measurement recorded six inches away from the waste.

The shipment was on the road for about 50 minutes for the 10-mile drive to the disposal site. Most of the drive was on Hanford roads closed to the public.

“Since this shipment took place last November, (Energy Northwest) has implemented improvements in both processes and procedures in the low-level radioactive waste shipping program,” Dobken said.

Improvements have included additional training and new procedures on how material is handled and inventoried. Two departments involved in the shipment have been combined under one manager.

A supervisor from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona also performed an assessment on the Columbia Generating Station’s shipping program.

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