Washington state: a pioneer for clean air

Washington state was serious about climate change before most people had heard of climate change. Well, actually, Washington state was serious about clean air. The state built most of its electric grid on hydro power, and then added nuclear energy.

grand coulee

Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.

As it happens, if you are a pioneer against air pollution, a clean air pioneer, you are also a pioneer against climate change. Because the greenhouse gases of climate change arise from combustion processes, the same source as most air pollution. Hurray for an electric grid based on hydro and nuclear!

More Pioneering Work Ahead

Especially in the clean air technology of nuclear energy, Washington state has been a pioneer. This leadership began with war work. The Hanford Generating Project was a dual-purpose reactor, producing plutonium for the Defense Department and clean nuclear energy for the Northwest. Next, the Fast Flux Test Facility, which housed a sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor. And, of course, Columbia Generating Station, the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear energy facility.

Former WA Gov. Chris Gregoire marks Columbia's license extension, allowing the plant to operate through 2043.

Former WA Gov. Chris Gregoire marks Columbia’s license extension, allowing the plant to operate through 2043.

As Gov. Jay Inslee moves forward with work on further reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state, the Washington legislature is considering several bills that could help that effort – and provide a boost to the state’s economy.

Nuclear as an Alternative Energy Source – Senate Bill 5091

The first bill, SB 5091, will help Washington state develop more nuclear clean air energy. This bill will recognize nuclear for what it truly is: a “qualified alternative energy resource.”

Right now, in order to promote clean energy, utilities in the state are required to purchase “alternative energy resources.” (This is under the state Energy Independence Act). Some of the resources that utilities purchase include wind turbines and solar panel output. Mostly wind. Both of these sources are low-carbon, but intermittent. They are available when the sun is shining or when the wind is blowing. When they are not available, in some instances, fossil-fired power plants (natural gas plants) must come on-line. (see graph below)


The earlier theory was that the hydro plants of Washington state would be used to come on-line when the wind died down. In general, this is what happens in this area: hydro backs up wind. But as wind energy grows, more and more hydro has had to be set aside for this balancing function, as described in a Bonneville Power document from 2011. (See page three and four of this report.)

Recent research shows that even current wind turbines are increasingly being backed up by natural gas, not hydro power. A master’s thesis from 2011 from Duke University shows that hydro availability has decreased in the mid-Columbia area, and it is expected that gas turbine usage will increase in the future, including more usage of natural gas to balance new wind projects.

Instead of building more wind turbines, and almost certainly building more gas plants and pipelines to support them, this bill gives Washington state the opportunity to use clean air nuclear energy for part of its alternative energy goals. Nuclear energy does not require fossil fuel back-up, so it is a very effective way to help our state achieve our low-carbon energy goals.

Small Modular Reactors – Senate Bill 5089

This bill would also encourage nuclear clean air energy, but specifically energy from small modular reactors. Washington’s Energy Independence Act, mentioned above, also requires utilities to buy “renewable resources.” Once again, the point of the original legislation was to encourage clean energy development and included these eligible resources listed in the statute: wind, solar, geothermal energy, landfill and sewage gas, wave and tidal power and certain biodiesel fuels. But the result has been a whole lot of wind and not much else. It was the resource easiest to build and the Federal production tax credit almost guaranteed a return on investment. As it’s written, SB 5089 would allow the use of small modular reactors (less than 50 MW per reactor) to be counted toward renewable/clean resource goals for the state.

As with the encouragement of bigger reactors, clean air is better served by nuclear energy than by too much increase of wind turbines, considering the wind turbine’s requirements for fossil fuel back up. There are even more reasons to support modular reactors, though, from the economic point of view.

Energy Northwest is working with NuScale to be among the first operators of a new type of modular reactor. Washington state can possibly become a manufacturing center for such reactors: that is the hope, anyway. With small modular reactors, Washington state could have high-paying manufacturing and engineering jobs. And clean air.

This is a post in favor of nuclear power, and not about wind turbines per se. But it should be remembered that the major wind turbine makers (Vesta, Iberdola) are in Europe, and they aren’t going to move their manufacturing to this country. For the U.S., there are construction jobs at installation, but comparatively few jobs when the facilities are running. I visited a twelve-unit, 24 MW wind turbine facility in New Hampshire and it employed about five people. According to James Conca in Forbes, using U.S. Department of Energy data, per megawatt of installed capacity, nuclear provides five times as many jobs as wind.

In contrast, we can consider small modular reactors. Washington state in particular has a strong, proud background in nuclear energy innovation. We can build the reactors here, with manufacturing jobs. Then, it will take a fair number of high-paying jobs to run the SMRs. With small modular reactors, the state can have clean air and a growing economy. That’s a win-win, for sure.

What you can do

To encourage clean air without fossil fuel backup but with economic growth, read the bills (linked below). I believe very strongly that nuclear supporters must speak out about the virtues of nuclear energy. Opponents of nuclear energy will probably testify that wind/renewables is all we need. In fact they are planning to say this. Some anti- nuclear energy folks have published a “Hot List” for testimony about this bill: the list trots out the well-worn fallacies about nuclear energy and blindly disparages SMR technology. If only they were as enlightened as the conservationists who write: “Yet, given the urgency of the global environmental challenges we must deal with in the coming decades, closing off our option on nuclear energy may be dangerously shortsighted.” That view was supported by dozens of other conservation scientists in an open letter to environmentalists.

Nuclear supporters need to be vocal about the reality that nuclear power provides low carbon energy right now, and that wind energy is not infinitely expandable without backup power.

Despite the assertions in the Hot List, in the world as it actually exists, wind is an intermittent resource, and hydro power is not an infinite resource. If we expand only wind energy in order to meet our goals, in the Northwest that means more carbon, not less. In this world, there is no utility-scale way to store power, except pumped storage.

Meanwhile, in the world of reality, you can take action. Let your voice be heard in favor of meeting our clean energy goals.

Links to bills:

SB 5091

SB 5089

(See also SB 5114)

(Post by Meredith Angwin)

Cybersecurity at Columbia Generating Station


The movie Blackhat opens nationwide Jan. 16.

On January 16, a movie called Blackhat will open nationwide. The movie is an international cyber thriller where a plan to disrupt the global banking system can only be stopped by a team of uniquely qualified American and Chinese partners. The movie trailer includes scenes involving a nuclear power plant.

While movies can be very entertaining, it’s important to remember the types of protections in place at Columbia Generating Station and other U.S. commercial nuclear power plants. These include:


Columbia’s critical digital infrastructure, in accordance with federal law, incorporates multiple defensive tiers that provide the greatest protection for digital equipment that can impact systems related to Safety, Security and Emergency Preparedness. The implementation of the tiers are with an emphasis on network isolation and one way data transmission configurations that protect key equipment from manipulation by outside parties.

Portable Media

Even the best network security and isolation can be circumvented by individuals who use USB drives and laptops to connect to plant equipment. These devices have the ability to introduce malicious software and compromise plant systems directly as a part of routine maintenance and equipment operations. Columbia implemented a broad set of controls that include antivirus scanning, laptop hardening, usage restrictions and positive control for all of the authorized devices.

Device protections

A third layer of protection is the configuration of the devices themselves. Columbia is currently undergoing an extensive assessment of installed plant equipment to identity the current security baseline and developing actions to remedy any gaps identified. Implementing a secure configuration for each digital device provides defense-in-depth that can protect the digital device if malicious software was injected into the system.


Network, laptop and device configurations are all dependent on one common interface – people. The success of all of these efforts relies on conscientious individuals understanding the importance of cyber security and their role in helping to implement and maintain secure plant systems. Columbia includes cyber security training through the initial and annual general employee training process so that all security badged individuals have a fundamental understanding of the overall requirements. Additionally, training was provided last summer to the Engineering department on the impacts to the design and oversight of digital equipment; and Maintenance is receiving portable media training in the biannual block training ahead of the refueling outage in May.


Tying all of these efforts together is a comprehensive set of policies and procedures that ensure the protections for digital equipment is incorporated in the full life-cycle of a digital component, including design, procurement, installation, maintenance and retirement.

This holistic approach to protecting digital devices provides a secure environment to safely operate digital equipment. But security ultimately rests in the hands of each individual following the procedures, internalizing the training and interacting with digital devices using safe behaviors. Together we can protect the future of Columbia and help our community understand the performance of Columbia is safe and reliable – even in a digital age.

(Posted by Dean Kovacs, Energy Northwest Information Services)

Used nuclear fuel storage in perspective

The existence of used nuclear fuel is not an excuse to decide against enjoying the benefits of further development of clean, baseload nuclear energy resources. Yet, one of the arguments often heard against building new nuclear energy facilities is that “there is no plan for the waste” or “there is no permanent repository.”

The plan for the past 30-odd years has been to store it. That storage location, since 1987, has been Yucca Mountain, a proposed deep geologic repository in Nevada. Yucca Mountain itself may never hold a single spent fuel rod, but another location will. Someday. As to the latter argument, that presupposes that once a permanent repository is named and opened, those making that argument will embrace nuclear energy. Likely?

In the meantime, used nuclear fuel is being safely and securely stored at nuclear energy facilities around the country with no environmental impact. No, it’s not ideal, but it’s not the crisis some would make it out to be, either. Even the New York Times got itself swept up in this mindset. The article by Henry Fountain, published Dec. 22 and found here, twice mentions that there are “hazards” associated with used nuclear fuel, while never mentioning what the hazards are.

Those who don’t care for nuclear energy like to make a point by talking about “the tens of thousands of metric tons” of used nuclear fuel out there. Indeed, the fuel is heavy. A small amount weighs a lot. But nuclear energy, as the most dense form of energy production, doesn’t require much fuel to generate a lot of power. And it doesn’t require much space to store its used nuclear fuel, either.

This graphic shows (to scale) the spent fuel storage site at Columbia Generating Station – and a corner convenience store 10 miles down the road. The Columbia site holds about half the nuclear fuel from 30 years of operation – or enough fuel to power a city the size of Seattle for about 11 years. (Note: Google Earth is a little behind and A Small Footprintthose empty spaces on the front pad are now filled.)

On a national scale, there are 80 sites that hold some used nuclear fuel, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There are 151,282 convenience stores in the U.S., according to their national association.

The documentary Pandora’s Promise does a wonderful job of putting the total of used nuclear fuel in perspective. Click here to view the YouTube clip.

The Wall Street Journal published a blog post on used nuclear fuel that is worth a look. You can find that here. One of the contributors is Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center in Seattle. “No serious effort to reduce carbon emissions can be successful without nuclear power,” Myers writes. “Even officials in ultra-green Seattle count nuclear energy as part of the city’s ‘carbon neutral’ energy portfolio. Such obstruction (regarding used nuclear fuel) callously risks wider environmental damage.”

Environmental impact?

So another way to look at used nuclear fuel storage is like you would the kitchen garbage receptacle. We all have one in our kitchen. Some are out in the open and some are hidden, concealed in cupboards. We all have them yet we still prepare all of our meals in the same kitchen – just feet or even inches away from all that icky garbage! And Kitchen and Trashwe don’t think twice about it. Don’t even give it a thought.

Why? Because we know once we put something in there it will stay there. The germs won’t crawl out and reach our pantry or sneak into the fridge. We keep our kitchens clean and the garbage pail is where the trash goes.

With used nuclear fuel storage – the spent fuel is put in robust steel and concrete containers, each weighing about 180 tons fully loaded. They sit on specially designed concrete pads in secure enclosures, monitored constantly. They are rated against all forms of natural and man-made disasters. The casks have no moving parts: it’s all convection cooling. And that’s how they will remain until we decide to do something with them. No environmental impact. The fuel itself is a highly-sintered ceramic (no liquids). It’s not moving out of those casks on its own.

Energy Northwest has plans to build three more concrete pads similar to the two we already have – and that will provide enough space for used fuel storage through the life of the plant – 2043. The trade-off is 60 years of carbon-free, baseload energy. Not a bad deal at all.

(Posted by John Dobken)

Columbia Generating Station sets third straight generation record

RICHLAND, Wash. – Columbia Generating Station produced more clean, nuclear energy for the Northwest power grid during 2014 than any other year in its 30-year history. Columbia sent nearly 9.5 million megawatt-hours of electricity to the grid, beating the previous generation record set in 2012 (9.3 million MWhrs). Columbia also set a generation record for a refueling outage year in 2013 (8.4 million MWhrs).

“We are doing what Energy Northwest does best: providing reliable, clean, cost-effective electricity to the region’s ratepayers,” said Mark Reddemann, Energy

Northwest CEO. “During 2014, Columbia operated at a 98.6 percent capacity factor. That number directly reflects our team’s commitment to excellence in performance.”

Columbia Generating Station set a generation record in 2014.

Columbia Generating Station set a generation record in 2014.

Columbia was online every single day in 2014 and broke its record for consecutive days online in November, beating the previous record of 505 days set in April 2011. As of today, Columbia has been online for 560 consecutive days. The current run began when the plant restarted following Columbia’s 2013 refueling and maintenance outage, which ended June 25, 2013. Columbia’s next refueling outage is scheduled to begin May 9.

In November, Columbia also marked five years without an unplanned shut-down.

“Our stakeholders expect us to be safe, reliable and predictable. We can’t achieve generation records such as these, safely, unless the entire team has that focus,” said Brad Sawatzke, Energy Northwest chief operating officer/chief nuclear officer.

Columbia Generating Station is the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear energy facility, generating 1,170 megawatts of electricity, which is sold at-cost to the Bonneville Power Administration. Ninety-two Northwest utilities receive a percentage of its output.

In December, Columbia marked 30 years of commercial operation. Regional power organizations – and Washington Governor Jay Inslee – have praised Columbia for its economic and environmental value.

Most recently, the Bonneville Power Administration credited Energy Northwest with helping to keep the fiscal year 2016-2017 power rate increase in the single digits.

According to Bonneville, opportunities and initiatives presented by Energy Northwest will save ratepayers approximately $125 million during the upcoming rate period.

Those opportunities afforded by Energy Northwest, and its industry and regional partners, were the repeal of the spent-fuel disposal fee that the Energy Department charged Columbia Generating Station, saving the region on average $7.4 million a year; refinancing of regional cooperation debt for 2014-17, saving about $29 million a year; and a decrease in Columbia’s operating costs, saving approximately $26 million a year.

“We are providing benefits to the region both from our generation of electricity and from working closely with our partners on increasing value through these strategic financial transactions. We are seeing successes on both sides,” said Brent Ridge, Energy Northwest vice president of Corporate Services and chief financial and risk officer.

The agency’s 2012 low-cost, below-market nuclear fuel purchase – enough fuel to last through 2028 – generated tens of millions of dollars in current rate case savings, and will save tens of millions more through 2028.

(Posted by John Dobken)

UPDATE: Alvarez Part II

If you read our Nov. 20 post “Why Do They Listen to Alvarez” (here) you know we had some disagreement with the report Robert Alvarez undertook regarding spent nuclear fuel management at Columbia Generating Station. One of the criticisms we voiced in the media was that Mr. Alvarez failed to contact us – ever – before publishing the report at the behest of the anti-nuclear energy group Physicians for Social Responsibility.

On Page 7 of the report, Alvarez writes:


The spent fuel pool at Columbia Generating Station.

“Because Energy Northwest currently has not revealed the burnup history and radiological contents of the spent fuel in the CGS pool, this report provides a range of estimated radioactivity based on generic calculations developed by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission…” (Italics added).

The report was released Nov. 19.

After publicly stating we were never asked for this information, but would be happy to provide it, on Dec. 1, we received a public records request from Physicians for Social Responsibility asking for the very information Energy Northwest “has not revealed” about the burnup history of our spent fuel. It has since been provided to PSR and, presumably, Mr. Alvarez.

What it revealed was that Mr. Alvarez was off a bit in his guesstimating – by as much as nearly 100,000,000 curies regarding the radioactivity of Columbia’s spent fuel. (His guess was on the high side, as you might imagine).

As for his discussion of Columbia’s burnup rate of spent fuel assemblies:

Alvarez guess: 40,000 to 50,000 MWD/t

Columbia verified average: ~35,000 MWD/t

(From the NRC: “Burnup” is a way to measure the uranium burned in the reactor. It is expressed in gigawatt-days per metric ton of uranium (GWd/MTU). Burnup depends on how long the fuel is in the core and the power level it reaches. The burnup level affects the fuel’s temperature, radioactivity and physical makeup. See here for more on high burnup spent fuel from the NRC. High burnup spent fuel is defined as 45 GWd/MTU. Note: Alvarez uses megawatt days instead of gigawatt days, which gives a higher visual number.)

Alvarez puts himself forward as a “senior scholar.” Well.

(Posted by John Dobken)