Energy Northwest and Columbia Generating Station– Three Decades of Value

Dec. 13, 2014 marks 30 years of operation for the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant – Columbia Generating Station. In that time, this facility has proven its value to the region and its citizens in providing reliable, clean energy, as well as many other benefits such as good paying jobs – and what’s more, Columbia Generating Station is on track to continue to provide these benefits to more than 9 million people for another two decades.

Columbia Generating Station’s history began in the late 1960’s with predictions of increasing energy demand; ideas moved to action when a nuclear plant, originally called Hanford 2, was ordered in 1971. General Electric would provide a BWR-5 boiling water reactor, while Burns & Roe would design, and Bechtel Corporation would build, the nuclear plant. Ground was broken to build the plant August 14, 1972; the plant, delayed as were so many in those years by both inside and outside factors, and eventually renamed Columbia Generating Station, was given its NRC operating license in December 1983 and was declared to be in commercial operation one year later, on Dec. 13, 1984.

A concept drawing of Columbia Generating Station from 1976. (Courtesy: Will Davis)

A concept drawing of Columbia Generating Station from 1976. (Courtesy: Will Davis)

Nuclear Value

Nuclear power plants are large, complicated projects that cost large amounts of money and take a long time to build. The value of nuclear as a generating source, though, isn’t all told by these facts; for example, General Electric, the reactor vendor for Columbia, found in 1977 that, on average, all of the energy required to fabricate all of the parts of a nuclear plant, including the fuel, and all the energy required to build it is returned by the nuclear plant in an average of one year’s worth of operation. Considering the lifespan of Columbia will be 60 years (for now), the return on energy investment is enormous. At that same time, GE found that a contemporary nuclear plant paid for itself (capital cost) in terms of fuel cost savings compared to fossil fuel in just four years. Considering today that we face ever tightening EPA carbon regulations that will further drive up the total cost of using fossil fuels, and also considering the widespread gridlock of today’s crowded and undersized railroad infrastructure (that is required to ship all coal, and most oil used for power generation) the advantages of nuclear continue to climb.

And how much energy does Columbia Generating Station produce? Well, the output of the plant is 1,170 Megawatts – enough to power the city of Seattle, including not just residential but commercial and industrial loads. That might be hard to grasp, but it is easier to grasp that just one of the many thousands of small, cylindrical fuel pellets in the reactor at any one time (about the size of the end of your pinkie finger) is equivalent in energy to almost 1,800 pounds of coal, or almost 150 gallons of oil.

And the fuel cost itself is both low, and reliable. Because Energy Northwest makes long-term strategic deals for uranium to be made into fuel (and refuels every two years, replacing a portion of the fuel only) it has been predicted by the Energy Information Administration that the levelized cost of power from Columbia through 2043 will be lower, even at its highest cost, than the lowest cost of natural gas or wind – and will be significantly lower than any projected solar power.

Speaking of long term – Columbia Generating Station made news in November when it set a new plant record by generating power continuously for 506 days without interruption, at a capacity factor of almost 97%. (They’re still going).

This reliable, around the clock power – not hindered by weather or time of day – has real future benefits when compared with alternatives. For example, a 2012 study conducted by the Bonneville Power Administration found (among many things) that if Columbia Generating Station were to shut down, energy costs in the area would go up overall through 2043 by $2.5 billion; worse, if the new added costs/taxes on carbon are added in, the figure goes up to an increase of $5.4 billion. Put the other way, Columbia Generating Station is saving somewhere between two and five billion dollars over the next two decades compared with a fossil powered alternate scenario – and this is just money, not environmental impact. These findings were bolstered by a 2013 study by IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates showing Columbia as the best of all options available to ratepayers when compared with all alternatives.

A Good Neighbor

Columbia Generating Station provides other benefits to the Northwest beyond providing reliable, affordable electric power. Columbia employs hundreds of dedicated, highly educated employees who live right in the region and participate in the economy – it’s estimated that Energy Northwest generates about $440 million in economic activity right in the Mid-Columbia. We mentioned refueling every two years; when that happens, the on-site work force swells by over 1,200 as temporary workers (many from the area) are brought in to not only refuel the reactor but to perform other work that must be done only when the plant is shut down. Certainly, this is another significant boost to the local economy. In addition to direct employment, Energy Northwest pays a “privilege tax” for being able to generate power ($4.5 million per year) and itself directly spends over $10 million per year to local businesses for a variety of goods and services. Columbia Generating Station is an integral part of the community in more ways than one.

The Future

America now sees the future of energy as something more complicated than it was when Columbia Generating Station was conceived. Renewable sources like wind and solar, only a distant dream in the early 70’s, are now coming on line. What’s more, fossil-fired stations – especially those burning coal – are now going to face ever tighter EPA restriction and penalty as a result of the Clean Energy Rule. Even home and business energy meters stand to be changed from simple recording devices to interactive, connected parts of a system; yet, the outcome of any of these changes or policies remains generally uncertain. Standing in the gap of these developments is Columbia Generating Station, which has received NRC approval to operate through almost the end of the year 2043 after two and a half years’ worth of review and over $17 million dollars of expenditure to ensure safety and reliability over the extension period. All of the benefits to the community detailed above will continue, year after year; all of the reliable and steady-cost energy the station provides will also continue, every day for three more decades.

As Energy Northwest looks back on thirty years’ worth of operation of Columbia Generating Station, it’s important to realize the accomplishments of the past are poised to continue into the future, almost half-way through the present century. With the state of change in other generating sources including availability, price and transport, it’s reassuring to know that this good neighbor will be there, rain or shine, for decades to come.

Will Davis for Energy Northwest, Dec. 11, 2014

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