Nuclear power plant near Richland breaks record

Energy Northwest’s nuclear fuel shuffle

It took more than 1,400 moves to change the fuel recently at the Columbia Generating Station near Richland.
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It took more than 1,400 moves to change the fuel recently at the Columbia Generating Station near Richland.

The nuclear power plant near Richland had its most productive year ever in 2018.

Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station set a record for its 34-year history by sending more than 9.7 million megawatt-hours of electricity to the grid.

It beat its previous record set in 2016 of 9.6 million megawatt hours. Monthly generation records were set in nine of the past 15 months.

The commercial nuclear plant, the only one in the Northwest, is Washington state’s third-largest electricity generator, behind only the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.

The improved production of the plant is the result of increasingly efficient operations since 2011 due to maintenance of the plant and upgrades, according to Energy Northwest.

The work has added about 60 megawatts to its capacity, giving it the capability to produce 1,207 megawatts, or enough energy to power Seattle and part of its metro area.

Columbia Generating file.JPG
Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station north of Richland set a new generation record in 2018, sending 9.7 million megawatt-hours of electricity to the grid. Tri-City Herald file

The improved performance has been a key factor in reducing the cost of producing electricity, which is sold at cost to Bonneville Power Administration for distribution across eight states, including to utilities in the Tri-Cities area.

Costs adjusted for inflation have dropped from 6.3 cents per kilowatt hour in Energy Northwest’s fiscal years 2010-11 to 4.7 cents in fiscal years 2016-17 and an estimated 4.2 cents in fiscal years 2018-19.

Because the plant is shut down for a period every other spring for refueling and maintenance that cannot be done while the plant is operating, costs are figured on two-year averages.

The current cost is lower than the 4.8 cents per kilowatt hour for new advanced combined-cycle natural gas, according to statistics provided by Energy Northwest from U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates prepared in 2018.

Other competitors to nuclear energy production include solar at an estimated 4.7 cents per kilowatt-hour cost after a 1.3 cent taxpayer subsidy and 3.7 cents for on-shore wind after a 1.1 cent taxpayer subsidy. Both estimates are for new facilities.

In addition to plant improvements, Energy Northwest has taken other steps to hold the line on costs.

It has eliminated unnecessary processes, tightened up its budgeting and continues to implement cost-saving ideas proposed by its employees, said Energy Northwest spokesman Mike Paoli.

It has reduced staff, mostly by retirements and other attrition, over the past eight years. In 2010 Energy Northwest had 1,200 employees, and now it has about 1,070 employees.

Most of Energy Northwest’s workers are at its nuclear plant, but it also has hydro plants, a wind project and is working to build a large solar project.

“We are believers in renewables at Energy Northwest,” said Brad Sawatzke, chief executive of Energy Northwest.

But unlike nuclear, wind and solar projects cannot provide electricity to the grid around the clock, he said.

Nuclear also integrates well with renewables, with the ability to power down when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining and there are more megawatts on the grid than needed, he said.

“It’s just one more reason we believe nuclear must be part of the climate change solution going forward,” he said.

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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.