It's not a year many people in the Northwest are thinking about, but it's one that we at Energy Northwest have focused on for the past five years.
Recently, we received news that bodes well for Washington's clean energy future: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Columbia Generating Station a license renewal that permits the plant to operate through 2043.
Columbia began its commercial operation in December 1984. Soon, we will celebrate 30 years of producing reliable, cost-effective, environmentally responsible electricity for Northwest ratepayers.
Columbia, the region's only nuclear energy facility, was initially licensed in 1983 to operate for 40 years, through 2023. There's nothing magic about the 40 years -- it was chosen to allow for amortization of the large capital investment of power plants at the time licenses were first issued in the 1950s.
That's an important fact. Some mistake the 40-year time frame as being equipment or system-related, or a given plant's "operating life." The truth is, at Columbia and other plants, systems are upgraded, equipment is replaced and the facility routinely undergoes preventive maintenance.
The NRC is currently looking at whether nuclear plants could have their operating licenses renewed a second time, or for 80 years total.
License renewal is not the "rubber stamp" that some critics claim it to be. Rather, it is a rigorous process that involves submitting a detailed application to the NRC for comprehensive review. The review includes numerous and independent on-site inspections and analysis of technical data. The public is also involved throughout the process, with multiple opportunities to express concerns related to the license renewal application.
Energy Northwest began our quest for license renewal in 2007, with a team of professionals who began compiling the information that would make up our application, which was submitted to the NRC in January 2010. That application comprised more than 2,200 pages.
For the next two and a half years, we worked with NRC staff to provide additional information and documentation to help with their evaluation of our safety procedures and potential environmental impacts.
Renewal of Columbia's operating license is key to meeting the region's current and future electricity needs. Columbia contributes nearly 10 percent of the power generated in Washington -- enough electricity to power 1 million homes. Energy Northwest provides all of the electricity produced by Columbia, at cost, to the Bonneville Power Administration, which delivers the power to utilities throughout Washington and other Western states.
Washington state enjoys an enviable status in the U.S. when it comes to its energy production -- an overwhelming majority of it is clean, meaning carbon-free. The state's noncarbon emitting sources include a vast hydroelectric system, our now abundant wind turbines and, of course, Columbia.
But only two of these sources are considered baseload, or full-time: Hydroelectric and nuclear. That type of 24/7/365 electricity is key for any economy or community that wants to sustain growth and opportunity. And because these are cost-effective sources of energy, we also enjoy one of the lowest electricity-rate structures in the U.S. It's hard to beat cheap and clean when you're talking about power.
That said, nuclear energy is also one of the safest industries in the United States. Our commitment to protect the public and our employees is unwavering and relentless.
Even though we had already taken a number of actions following the events of 9/11 that make a Fukushima-type accident unlikely in the U.S., we currently have a multidiscipline team that is incorporating the lessons learned from Fukushima to make our facility and operations even safer.
When Gov. Chris Gregoire visited Columbia recently, she complimented the men and women of Energy Northwest for the continued safe operation of the plant. Her acknowledgment of our commitment to safety as our No. 1 priority meant a lot.
As we finish out the remaining years of our initial license and enter into our next 20 years of operation, I pledge to our neighbors throughout the Northwest to maintain that commitment.
-- Mark Reddemann is CEO of Energy Northwest. The public power consortium operates hydro, wind and solar energy projects, as well as Columbia Generating Station.