Nuclear Power Just Doesn’t Need Much Fuel

On May 8th, the Columbia Generating Station, the only nuclear power plant in the Pacific Northwest, disconnected from the grid in order to carry out its biannual refueling. It refueled and connected back to the grid last Saturday, only 42…

On May 8th, the Columbia Generating Station, the only nuclear power plant in the Pacific Northwest, disconnected from the grid in order to carry out its biannual refueling. It refueled and connected back to the grid last Saturday, only 42 days later.

Just in time to meet the summer’s increased demand for electricity.

Unlike fossil fuel plants that have to be fueled continuously, refueling of nuclear plants only happens every two years because nuclear produces so much power using so little fuel. And only a third of the fuel is replaced, just those fuel elements that have been in the reactor for six years. The Columbia Generating Station produces about 20 tons of spent fuel each year to generate about 10 billion kWh of electricity. Compare this to a coal plant which produces almost a million tons of toxic waste to produce the same amount of electricity, not to mention the 2 million tons of CO2 that enters the atmosphere. Operators replaced 260 of the 764 nuclear fuel assemblies in Columbia’s reactor core with new fuel, about a third. The fuel that had been in the reactor core for six years was placed in the adjacent spent fuel pool, where the assemblies will remain for a minimum of five years to remove residual heat and await being moved to Columbia’s on-site dry cask storage. Refueling is a big deal, especially for workers. Columbia’s owner and operator, Energy Northwest, hired more than 1,400 skilled temporary workers to support its own approximately 1,000 regular employees for the refueling. MORE FOR YOUThe Supreme Court Deals Ethanol A Blow By Undermining The Renewable Fuel StandardOne Company Could Hold The Key To Unlocking Critical Mineral Supply ChainsFord’s New Electric Pickup Could Spark Changing Attitude In Oil Industry Outage workers Jeremy Zohn (left) of Pasco and Rip Logan of Oregon clean the low-pressure turbine … [+] rotor prior to installation during the reactor’s biennial outage. About 1,400 skilled temporary workers were hired to support the outage. Energy Northwest During refueling, a host of other tasks are carried since the reactor is shut down. Tasks such as preventative maintenance on equipment and major system upgrades, tasks that can sustain the nuclear station’s generation efficiency and reliability. Work crews installed a 34-foot, 133-ton refurbished low-pressure turbine rotor, replaced the reactor water cleanup heat exchangers, refurbished a condensate pump and motor, inspected and cleaned the circulating water basin and piping, replaced a reactor recirculating pump and motor, and performed many inspections. ADVERTISEMENT Equipment replacements, refurbishments and upgrades have increased Columbia’s gross generation capacity from 1,150 MW in 2010 to 1,207 MW in 2017. During 2020, the plant produced record levels of carbon-free energy with economic dispatch; more than 9.9 billion kW-hours. Calendar year 2020 net generation was the fourth highest ever. “The team completed a tremendous amount of work over the past several weeks,” said Grover Hettel, Energy Northwest chief nuclear officer. “Getting Columbia back online after a refueling is always a significant achievement that we’re proud of because of the carbon-free electricity the plant provides for the region.” Energy Northwest employees Kyle Morris (right) and Todd Gleave work on a condensate pump in June as … [+] part of scheduled maintenance during Columbia Generating Station’s biennial refueling outage. Energy Northwest ADVERTISEMENT It’s always surprising to hear the public and anti-nuke activists repeating the willfully ignorant ideology that nuclear is unsafe. It turns out to be the safest of all energy sources by any measure and in any study. The Columbia Generating Station, earned the American Public Power Association’s Safety Award of Excellence for safe operating practices in 2020. At the same time, nuclear has the highest rate of electricity generation of any energy source, producing the amount of electricity it’s supposed to produce, well over 90% of the time even in years when they have outages for fuel replacement. Energy Northwest usually has over a 95% capacity factor (cf = power produced over a year divided by the maximum power that could be produced). On the other hand, coal averages about 55%, natural gas about 60%, hydro about 44%, wind 35% and solar 25%. And nuclear takes so little fuel, produces so little waste, which we know what to do with, and just keeps going and going. ADVERTISEMENT All for between 4.7 – 5.2 ¢/kWh now and for the next 30 years. Can’t get much more reliable, safe or cost-effective than that. Not only is Energy Northwest safe and productive, it’s part of a non-profit public agency, formed as a Washington State joint operating agency in 1957. Electricity from Columbia Generating Station is distributed to 92 utilities across the Pacific Northwest as part of the Bonneville Power Administration. The electricity produced at Columbia Generating Station, located 10 miles north of Richland, is sold at-cost to BPA. The Horn Rapids Solar, Storage & Training Project provides Washington state its first opportunity to … [+] integrate a utility-scale solar and storage facility (includes a 1-MW/4MWh battery) into its clean mix of hydro, nuclear and wind. Energy Northwest Energy Northwest also operates the White Bluffs Solar Station (38.7 kW with a cf = 15%), the Horn Rapids Solar Storage & Training Project, the Packwood Lake Hydroelectric Project (27.5 MW with a cf = 38%), the Tieton, Portland and Stone Creek hydroelectric projects, and the Nine Canyon Wind Project (96 MW with a cf = 31%). ADVERTISEMENT The combined output of these non-fossil fuel systems exceeds 10 billion kWhrs/year, enough energy to power a city the size of Seattle, having a total capacity of over 1,300 MW with an average combined capacity factor of greater than 90%. “The refueling and maintenance we do is complex and requires several years of planning and a highly-skilled team to complete,” Hettel said. “Outages are a rigorous, non-stop 24/7 activity. I’m extremely proud of the team for working safely. We really appreciate the performance of our Energy Northwest employees, contractors and local labor unions,” Hettel said. Energy Northwest and the Bonneville Power Administration time the biennial refueling to coincide with spring snow melt and runoff that maximizes power output from the region’s hydroelectric system and minimizes the impact of taking the nuclear station offline. ADVERTISEMENT