Energy Northwest barred from shipping nuclear waste

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KENNEWICK — The Washington Department of Health has indefinitely suspended Energy Northwest’s authority to ship low-level radioactive waste after a July 20 shipment to Hanford was mislabeled.

The health department notified Energy Northwest of its decision in a July 26 letter addressed to Mike Davis. It is the second time in less than a year that the state has barred the nuclear plant from shipping waste after shipments didn’t match up with manifests.

Mike Paoli, spokesman for Energy Northwest, said the July incident was minor and did not endanger public health or safety.

He noted that although the state health department acted, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not. Paoli said the health department acted correctly to take action but he characterized the incident as a non-event related to a wrong manifest. The shipment itself was properly packaged and accepted by U.S. Ecology for storage at Hanford.

Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station continues to operate normally, Paoli said, noting the no-shipping order will have no practical impact on operations.

Energy Northwest typically ships material to U.S. Ecology every two weeks. However, it can store material on site while it works through the health department’s review process. Paoli said a report on the event will be reviewed by its internal “challenge board” before being sent to state regulators.

In the interim, Energy Northwest senior managers are scrutinizing all documentation associated with low-level waste shipments before they are moved off the site.

“They’re going to be crawling through everything,” Paoli said.

The health department acted after a manifest for a July 20 shipment indicated surface radiation levels were much lower than they actually were on arrival.

U.S. Ecology at Hanford accepted the shipment but reported the discrepancy to state regulators.

Columbia Generating Station is one of 14 in U.S. subject to enhanced scrutiny by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission because of past shipping discrepancies.

The NRC issued a “white” violation finding against the plant last month related to a similar radioactive waste shipping incident in November. In that case, a 7-foot-tall, 45,000-pound cask of waste was trucked to U.S. Ecology. The cask was surveyed and rejected because it was determined radiation was seven times greater than the manifest indicated.