COLUMBIA GENERATING STATION, Benton County — Clad in yellow suits, three workers took position on a steel bridge inside the concrete reactor building of Washington’s only nuclear power plant.
Below them stretched a pool of water 55 feet deep. It acted like a protective shield, blocking the radiation emanating from the submerged core.
Peering down, they could see a deep blue glow, the eerie underwater signature of charged particles surging from bundles of fuel rods.
It was May 12, and the high-stakes task of refueling this power plant was about to begin.
This reactor’s electricity — enough to power the city of Seattle on a typical day — has gained new importance as Washington seeks by midcentury to largely eliminate the greenhouse gas emissions from oil, gas and coal that contribute to global warming. And the plant’s operators have joined in a broader push by the U.S. nuclear industry to play a bigger, long-term role in the America’s energy future.
For more than a month, rotating crews used a remote-operated grapple to slowly remove these bundles and reposition others in a giant jigsaw puzzle of a job.
In a command center, managers gathered every four hours to monitor progress on the refueling and more than a thousand other maintenance tasks to get the plant back on line for another two years of operation.
“Nothing is routine,” said Bob Schuetz, the CEO for plant operator Energy Northwest.
Columbia Generating Station is part of a fleet of more than 90 U.S. commercial nuclear reactors that in 2020 produced one-fifth of the nation’s electricity, and did so without the direct combustion of fossil fuels.
In pitching for more investment in nuclear energy, industry officials have found allies among some environmentalists who have concluded that the rapidly escalating planetary threat from climate change — hammered home in recent summers by extreme heat, wildfires and powerful hurricanes, and the focus of the recent United Nation conference in Scotland — justifies keeping the current generation of plants open as long as possible. They also are supporting efforts to build a new generation of smaller, more nimble nuclear reactors that could pour power into the regional grids and could help prevent blackouts.
“Wind and solar can do a hell of a lot of the lift. But when you say it can do all of it — that’s magical thinking,” said Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Uncertain future of nuclear energy
The demand for low-carbon electricity will grow dramatically in the years ahead as U.S. power producers, in Washington state and elsewhere, shut down coal and natural gas plants. In 2019, fossil fuels generated more than 60% of the nation’s power, and even in Washington, where hydropower is abundant, they accounted for more than 22% of the electricity.
Columbia Generating Station currently ranks as the third-largest source of power in the Pacific Northwest behind the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams. It was built in the desert some 10 miles north of Richland, Washington, and just west of the Columbia River.
The plant can generate about 1,200 megawatts of power, and a $649 million plan now under consideration would boost that capacity by as much as 15 percent by early 2033. This project, which requires Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval, could be done by using more uranium fuel in the reactor, and upgrades to the turbine and other parts of the plant.
The plant is licensed to operate until 2043, and Energy Northwest officials, in the years ahead, are likely to seek a license renewal to operate until 2063.
“As we phase out of these carbon generation sources … we want to be part of the solution,” said Brad Sawatzke, who served as Energy Northwest’s CEO until he retired at the end of June.
Still, there are questions and intense debate about the future of nuclear power, with many environmentalists wary or outright opposed to a bigger role for it.
The U.S. nuclear industry still lacks a long-term site where spent nuclear fuel removed from reactors can be safely stored for the thousands of years that it will remain radioactive and pose a risk to human health and the environment. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada once designated as an underground storage repository sparked an avalanche of protests and was abandoned by the Obama administration.
Opponents cite the legacy of the environmental degradation and health impacts of mining and processing uranium fuel and the risks of nuclear accidents. The 2011 tsunami-triggered Fukushima disaster involved three reactor meltdowns. Some 154,000 people were evacuated.
They also note that some fossil fuels are used to produce the fuel, as well as to restore lands disturbed by mining. Just how much is a matter of debate. Some studies estimated these greenhouse emissions on average to be about the same as wind power, which consumes fossil fuels, in part, to produce turbines.
For the U.S. nuclear industry, some of the biggest challenges are on the financial front. During the past decades, plant operators have struggled to compete in markets awash in electricity generated from natural gas, wind and solar power. Since 2013, 12 U.S. reactors have shut down, and three more are scheduled to close by 2024, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute and a longtime critic of the nuclear industry, notes that renewable energy sources have attracted billions of dollars of private investment as costs plummeted over the past decade and economies of scale took hold.
Meanwhile, the recent history of nuclear power plant construction in the United States is fraught with cost overruns and delays.
Two South Carolina utilities spent $9 billion in a failed effort to build two nuclear reactors that were abandoned in 2017 with the project less than 40% complete. Twin reactors under construction in Georgia were supposed to begin generating power in 2016, but the project is not yet finished and the costs — topping $27 billion — have more than doubled from earlier estimates.
Rather than add more nuclear to the mix, Lovins advocates continuing to expand solar and wind power as well as other sources of renewables, such as geothermal energy.
Lovins also says that a lot more could be done to cut electricity use through investing in more conservation. He finds big potential in programs that cut demand — for example, by cycling appliances on and off, adjusting thermostats or briefly raising electricity prices — when supplies are strained.
“Nuclear has no business case,” Lovins said.
To help keep more of the existing fleet from closing, nuclear industry lobbyists have looked to Congress for help. The infrastructure bill passed in August by the U.S. Senate contains $6 billion in “credits” over five years to the owners of money-losing nuclear plants.
Meanwhile, an early draft of the House’s “Build Back Better” budget bill included, according to one congressional estimate, nearly $16 billion in tax credits through the course of a decade that could be claimed by nuclear plant operators even if they are not losing money.
“We are concerned that the House language could be overly generous,” said Steve Clemmer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which in a 2018 report called for broader federal policies, such as a clean-energy standard, to help more nuclear plants stay open. “It doesn’t make sense to be giving profitable nuclear power plants taxpayer subsidies to keep operating. It’s not going to result in further carbon reductions.”
Washington state forged a deep, early bond with the atomic science that launched a new nuclear era of weaponry and energy production.
Columbia Generating Station sits at the edge of the Hanford site, where plutonium was first produced for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in a secrecy-shrouded World War II effort that left a toxic legacy of chemical and radioactive wastes, a focal point of a decades-long cleanup.
The Washington Public Power Supply System, a consortium of public utilities, made a different kind of history with a bungled attempt launched in the 1970s to build five new nuclear power plants. Only one of these plants — Columbia Generating Station — ever produced power. The rest were abandoned before completion.
In the summer of 1983, WPPSS defaulted on $2.2 billion in municipal bonds owed on two of the plants in a fiasco that stunned financial markets.
The bond debt on two other uncompleted plants has been refinanced to take advantage of lower interest rates. It tallied $1.7 billion as of June 2021, according to an annual report by Energy Northwest, the name that the utility consortium chose in 1998 to replace WPPSS after it got the nickname of “Whoops.”
The money to pay off this debt, as well as the costs of operating and financing Columbia Generating Station, comes from the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets this power, along with hydroelectricity, in the region. These expenses are incorporated into the rates that BPA charges regional public utilities, such as Seattle City Light, that purchase the power in long-term contracts.
BPA and Energy Northwest have worked through the decades in a sometimes tumultuous partnership.
During the past decade, BPA has put pressure on Energy Northwest to cut operating expenses of Columbia Generating Station, which produces power at far more than the costs of federal hydro projects, and typically much more than electricity that can be purchased in regional markets.
The BPA sometimes puts a premium on flexible generation that avoids running Columbia Generating Station’s full capacity at a time when regional power prices collapse. These market dips often happen in the spring when snowmelt creates abundant hydroelectricity and the wind farms crank out power.
Schuetz says Energy Northwest has made a series of improvements to make the plant operate more reliably and efficiently, with average operating costs falling by more than a third since 2010.
Columbia Generating Station also can cut power by 15% with an hour’s notice. With three days’ notice, generation can fall by as much as 75%, under an agreement that Energy Northwest has reached with the BPA.
Such fluctuations, which happened four times in 2020, can cause increased wear on the plant, though monitoring so far had not picked up problems, according to Schuetz.
“It’s a very complicated machine. It works best when you just leave it alone,” said Schuetz, the chief executive officer. “And our agreement with BPA is that they can’t whipsaw us around.”
Scott Burnell, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said it was rare for a grid operator to ask a nuclear power plant to ramp up and down. “You are putting stress on a number of components, and from our standpoint, we just want to make sure the plant continues to run safely,” Burnell said.
The heart of Columbia Generating Station’s reactor is a steel-walled vessel that stands some 75 feet tall and holds 764 bundles of fuel rods. Each fuel rod is packed with fingertip-sized pellets of processed uranium that generate heat through the splitting of billions of atoms each second.
Water boils as it circulates through the reactor core, and is transformed into high-pressure steam, which is fed into turbines to generate electricity.
More than 900 people are employed in year-round jobs to produce this electricity, including union workers averaging $50 per hour in wages. Every other spring, the workforce temporarily more than doubles — this year reaching 2,400 people — as the reactor shuts down for refueling.
The bundles of fuel rods removed from the reactor are stored in underwater racks. This is not without risks because a loss of water in the tanks could result in a fuel fire and serious radiation releases that could force evacuations.
Earthquakes are a particular concern.
Columbia Generating Station initially was built to withstand a magnitude 6.9 earthquake and subsequent U.S. Geological Survey studies indicated that the area is capable of producing a 7.5 magnitude, which is eight times more powerful. That triggered a 2013 call from the Washington and Oregon chapters of the Physicians for Social Responsibility for the plant to shut down until it could be upgraded.
Since those studies were completed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff has reviewed seismic analyses and concluded that Columbia still “can safely shut down” under the earthquake scenarios now considered possible, according to Burnell.
After five years in the pools, the fuel-rod bundles are cool enough to be placed in stainless steel canisters. Then, they are stowed in concrete casks that sit on a pad surrounded by a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire.
Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have concluded they can securely hold spent fuel for at least a century while longer-term options are developed, according to interviews with laboratory researchers. But this still falls far short of a permanent storage site that could hold them for millennia.
Coming back on line
During refueling, most of the work is maintenance, which can only be done when the reactor is shut down, and involves a formidable array of structures and equipment.
This past spring, two important projects did not go as planned.
A pump vital to the reactor’s power production needed to be replaced. But the contractor hired to do the job “had a significant number of human performance errors,” said Sawatzke, Energy Northwest’s then-chief executive officer, at a June board meeting.
This caused delays and increased costs.
On another project that required extensive welding involving replacement of a water circulation system, two workers, who Energy Northwest officials said failed to follow instructions, inhaled contaminated dust. The doses were well below the maximum annual radiation exposures. But during the board meeting, Energy Northwest’s Grover Hettel called the accident a “significant radiological event” that contributed to delays as work stopped to make sure everyone understood safety protocols.
The plant’s springtime closure was timed to coincide with a seasonal surge in BPA hydropower production as the Northwest snowpack melt funneled into the Columbia River.
This spring was unusually hot and dry, and it morphed into an extraordinary June with record-high temperatures near the end of the month triggering a surge in electrical demand to power air conditioners.
Energy Northwest managers hoped for a 35-day outage, which would enable them to resume power production June 12.
When that date came, there was still more work to be done.
Schuetz said plant officials were aware that BPA “was very interested” in getting Columbia Generating Station back on line, “but we did not rush.”
At 12:25 a.m. on June 19, 42 days after the plant first shut down, Columbia Generating Station power began flowing into the regional grid.
By then, planning for the next refueling already was underway.