Columbia Generating Station may start up Saturday

Energy Northwest has begun to power up its nuclear power plant near Richland at the end of the longest outage in its history.

The reactor went critical Monday and if work goes well, the reactor could be supplying power to the electrical grid Saturday.

A few days after that, the plant could be operating at full power, said Brad Sawatzke, the plant's chief nuclear officer, after an Energy Northwest board committee meeting Wednesday.

The Columbia Generating Station shut down April 6 for a refueling outage that is scheduled every two years. This outage was expected to last longer because of a major project planned, the replacement of the plant's 25-year-old condenser.

However, management did not anticipate the delays and work stoppages that plagued the condenser replacement by contractor Babcock and Wilcox Co. The condenser turns steam generated by boiling water in the reactor back into water for reuse in the plant. When the outage began, the plant was estimated to be operating again about June 23.

The Bonneville Power Administration earlier estimated that if power production did not resume by the end of September, the net cost would be more than $60 million.

The outage was scheduled for spring to take advantage of high water flows through the federal hydroelectric dam system, and runoff this spring was the highest since 1997. But the runoff began to taper off by early July.

BPA is pleased to see the plant safely coming back on line, said Michael Milstein, BPA spokesman. There is late summer power demand for air conditioning, so there is clearly a market for the power, he said.

The Columbia Generating Station's power, sold to BPA and then to retail customers across the Northwest, is valued at more than $1 million a day.

The new condenser, plus additional improvements to turbines and valves made during the outage, are expected to increase the plant's efficiency. As the restart was delayed, Energy Northwest used the time to do additional maintenance work.

The 1,150 megawatt plant is expected to gain up to 12 megawatts of electricity generation as a result.

"We're excited to see how the plant performs. We expect it to perform well," Sawatzke said.