Richland nuclear plant kept under order to heat the frigid Northwest

For most of the month of February the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant has been under a “no touch” order to help keep the heat on across the region.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the electricity produced at the nuclear plant near Richland, asked for the restriction during an unusually cold February across the state that increased the demand for electricity.

The policy limits any maintenance activity that would either require a reduction in power or would pose a risk to sustaining 100 percent production, said Mike Paoli, spokesman for Energy Northwest.

“No touch” is occasionally requested by BPA when unusually hot or cold weather increases demand for electricity.

For instance, in August 2017 the nuclear power plant was under the policy for about a week.

Water vapor rises from the Columbia Generating Station north of Richland on Thursday. Courtesy Columbia Generating Station

But in February the plant was under a no touch policy for 23 of the past 26 days.

It restricted maintenance activities not only at the nuclear reactor, but also on its turbine generator and in the transformer yard.

The exception was for an hour or so on Feb. 16 when BPA agreed that it would be a good idea to do one of the periodically scheduled nuclear plant control rod adjustments.

Although the plant powered down by 30 percent, the change helped optimize power production, Paoli said.

Depending on nuclear

Columbia Generating Station has the capability to produce 1,207 megawatts, which is typically enough energy to power Seattle and part of its metro area. It is the third largest electricity generator in the state.

The nuclear plant helps protect BPA from having to go out on the open market to buy power, said David Wilson, a BPA spokesman.

“We asked them for the “no touch order,” because of low stream flows, high natural gas prices and the very cold weather,” he told the Herald.

The cold snap comes as water flows that spin dam turbines are low and wind generation is not at peak production.

bpa chart.png
The demand for Bonneville Power Administration electricity is shown in red along with the electricity produced by different sources. Courtesy Bonneville Power Administration

Energy Northwest’s Nine Canyon Wind Project near Kennewick only turned out 20 percent of its potential during February, Paoli said.

Both the hottest and coldest months in the Mid-Columbia are often the least windy.

Natural gas plants were constrained by pipeline capacity as natural gas was needed to heat homes in cold weather rather than produce electricity.

Natural gas prices also are sensitive to demand, according to BPA.

When the Northwest is experiencing relatively low hydro generation and high electricity demand, a good portion of the power BPA purchases in the Pacific Northwest typically comes from natural gas.

The no touch order at the Columbia Generating Station was expected to be lifted at midnight on the last day of February, although continued cold weather could require it to continue.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.