Energy Northwest’s nuclear power plant near Richland is counting down to 12 a.m. Saturday, when it will power down for an operating outage to replace about one third of its fuel.
When it starts operating again a scheduled 42 days later, it should be with a potentially increased output of electricity and improved efficiency and reliability. That should translate to cost savings to be passed on to electricity users in the Northwest.
Columbia Generating Station sells its power at-cost to the Bonneville Power Administration, and 92 Northwest utilities receive a percentage of its output.
A portion of the fuel in the plant has been replaced every two years since 2001 — before that the refueling outages were annual — making this the plant’s 22nd refueling.
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Energy Northwest is spending a budgeted $106 million on this outage, with about $28.5 million of that capital costs.
The outage will be used not only to replace 248 of the plant’s 764 nuclear fuel assemblies, but also for maintenance and upgrades that can be difficult when the plant is operating. Fuel is replaced after it has been in the core for six years.
If the restaurants and RV parks in the Tri-Cities seem a bit busier this month and next, thanks can go to the outage.
About 1,500 workers have been hired to supplement about 1,100 permanent Energy Northwest workers.
About 80 percent of the outage workers are from outside the Mid-Columbia, and while they are here they may rent cars, apartments and RV spaces, and eat in restaurants, said Brent Ridge, Energy Northwest chief financial operator.
“Those are dollars that stay here,” he said.
Outages are planned for the late spring so the reactor is shut down at a time when rivers are seasonally high, generating great amounts of hydroelectric power, and the demand for electricity dips between winter heating and summer air-conditioning.
Despite drought conditions, BPA’s hydropower production is “doing OK” now and into the summer months, said Michael Hansen, BPA spokesman. Much of the water used for BPA hydropower comes from higher elevations in Montana, Idaho and British Columbia where the snowpack has been good.
However, the hydropower outlook could change by August and September if the summer is warm and runoff is fast, he said. Better projections on the hydropower outlook for those months could be available in about a week.
Energy Northwest recognizes that with generally lower snowpacks in the Northwest it is important to get the plant operating on schedule before the summer warms up, said Brad Sawatzke, Energy Northwest chief operating officer.
Columbia Generating Station, the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear energy plant, generates 1,170 megawatts of electricity, which is about the amount of electricity used by a city the size of Seattle. It is the third largest electricity generator in Washington, behind only the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.
One of the major projects planned for this outage could increase the nuclear plant’s output capacity by at least five megawatts, according to Energy Northwest.
The project will install more accurate ultrasonic instruments for measuring the water flow through the reactor core. More water flow increases the electricity produced, and the new instruments will allow the water flow to run closer to the maximum possible, Sawatzke said.
Another project will install an improved system to measure reactor power, allowing for better fuel use. Less electricity is expected to be needed for reactor operations, allowing more of the electricity to be used to supply customers.
The third major project will be installing three new 175-ton power transformers, which cost $9.1 million. The current transformers for electricity produced at the plant have been used since the plant began delivering power to the Northwest in 1984.
The new transformers should ensure plant reliability and serve the nuclear power plant through the end of its operating life, scheduled for the end of 2043, according to Energy Northwest.
Many smaller maintenance projects are planned. Energy Northwest has prepared 2,150 work orders with more than 13,000 tasks to be performed in 42 days.
“Any significant major projects has challenges,” Sawatzke said. “The team has worked hard and we are well prepared and ready to execute.”