RICHLAND — Energy Northwest's nuclear power plant near Richland will power down for a 40-day refueling outage Saturday.
The timing is ideal for the Tri-City area economy, said Mark Reddemann, Energy Northwest chief executive.
As the Hanford nuclear weapons cleanup project has been hit with layoffs and furloughs caused by forced federal budget cuts, Energy Northwest has hired 1,350 temporary employees.
That includes a combination of local and out-of-town workers, many of whom have been arriving in the Tri-Cities during the past month to prepare Columbia Generating Station for the outage.
"They spend a lot of time, a lot of money in the community," Reddemann said.
The plant is refueled every two years, and the down time is used for maintenance and repairs that cannot be done while the plant is producing power.
The outage is scheduled in the spring, when the need for the plant's 1,170 megawatts of power -- enough to supply a city the size of Seattle -- is lower than normal. Demand for electricity drops with mild spring weather, and hydropower is abundant in the spring.
This will be the plant's 21st refueling outage, but workers are being told it's the plant's most important.
The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations in late 2010 rated Columbia as one of two nuclear plants in the nation in greatest need of operational and employee performance improvement. Problems occurred primarily in 2009, when the plant had a series of scrams, or unplanned shutdowns.
The plant has made significant improvement in performance in the past 18 months, said Brad Sawatzke, vice president of nuclear generation.
In 2012, it pushed a record 9.34 million megawatt hours of electricity onto the grid. Safety and low radiation exposure records also were set for the plant.
"We feel good about the improvements we made, but nothing challenges like an outage," Sawatzke said.
More than 2,000 work orders with 14,000 tasks must be done if possible within 40 days. It will be a test of the plant's excellence initiative that so far has produced results, he said.
The outage also will provide the first chance to clean and look at the plant's new condenser since it was installed during the last outage. The condenser, which turns steam generated by boiling water in the nuclear reactor back into water for re-use, has performed well, Sawatzke said.
In the past, members of Boilermakers No. 242 have done the work to clean out the condenser tubes. But this year, about 16 local union members are being displaced by out-of-town, nonunion workers, said Mark Keffeler, business manager of the local.
Energy Northwest said it picked a contractor to do the work with newer, more specialized tools, which will allow the work to be done more quickly. The 16 workers have experience with the tools, said plant officials.
But the Boilermakers say their workers also have experience with that equipment and are upset with the change.
"All things being equal, our aim remains to bring on local hires as a first-choice option," said Mike Paoli, Energy Northwest spokesman.
The previous outage lasted about 175 days, a record for the plant, when replacing the condenser took far longer than planned.
But with the plant not operating as the condenser replacement dragged on, Energy Northwest was able to get additional maintenance done.
That will give workers some breathing room during the current outage, Sawatzke said.
Crews will take out 240 fuel bundles and replace them with fresh ones.
The maintenance work will include replacing 35 control rod blades within the reactor core. Other work includes replacing almost 35 critical electrical breakers, overhauling six turbine valves and taking a look at more than 150 motor-operated valves and 130 air-operated valves.
This spring, a pinhole leak was found in the reactor's water cleanup system piping. A temporary patch was installed, but during the outage the section of piping will be replaced. Because of radiation levels, as much of the welding and cutting as possible will be done with remotely operated equipment.
Additional piping also will be inspected and will be replaced if deterioration is found.