The remarkable performance record recently set by Washington State’s one and only nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station, is a tribute to outstanding management by Energy Northwest’s CEO Mark Reddemann, the Board, Executive board, and the pursuit of excellence by the management and staff.
The success of the Station, originally called WNP-2, is even more remarkable for those of us who remember the turmoil the reactor project survived before its completion in 1984. The anti-nuclear movement was in full swing during its construction in the 1980s, and the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), now Energy Northwest, was struggling to construct five nuclear power plants in Western Washington and at Hanford.
My involvement with the project began in 1980 when Tri-Cities leader Sam Volpentest and Washington State Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson encouraged me to leave my position as DOE’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Programs and become CEO of WPPSS to fix its management problems and to try to salvage the nuclear plant projects.
I was acutely aware that the nuclear power industry was “on the ropes,” and the accident at Three-Mile Island in 1979 had sparked great public fear of nuclear power plants. Anti-nuclear groups were organizing protests at nuclear construction sites across the nation, including WPPSS five projects. But I accepted the challenge because I believed that if we could solve the problems facing WPPSS in completing those nuclear power plants, it would signal a turnaround for the entire industry.
As managing director of WPPSS, I faced extreme pressure to abandon WNP-2. The project had been shut down by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because of safety concerns over quality assurance, a labor strike had stopped work on all Hanford projects, and the WNP-2 jobsite had drug and prostitution problems. We resolved all of these issues, but four of the five nuclear plant projects were cancelled because the project planners had over-calculated the need for electric power in the region.
The cancellation of the WNP-4 and 5 plants resulted in the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history, earning WPPSS the demeaning moniker of WHOOPS! in the news media across the nation.
The Columbia Generating Station and Energy Northwest’s successful emergence from this turbulent history to set national performance records demonstrates to the region the resilience of Public Power and nuclear energy.
The record performance of 683 days of continuous operation at 98 percent capacity is as close to optimum as any designer or operator can hope to achieve. For more than 30 years, this plant has been providing the Bonneville Power Administration and its Pacific Northwest customers with some of the lowest-cost electricity in the country — 4.7 to 5.2 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Compare that rate to natural gas at 6 to 14 cents/kWh, wind at 7 to 10 cents/kWh, or solar at 11 to 42 cents/kWh.
As one of the remaining 99 operating nuclear plants in the U. S., the Columbia Generating Station represents the success of nuclear power generation in the United States. It’s clear that subsidized solar and wind energy, although the political favorites, are not viable substitutes for reliable carbon-free nuclear energy.
As the United States and the rest of the world struggle with the issue of global climate change, it’s essential to recognize nuclear energy as the “clean energy” that can meet our nation’s base load energy needs now, with even safer and more-efficient plants to be built in the near future.
In 2014, Tri-Cities Development Council, TRIDEC, sponsored a study of the Hanford Site as a possible location to construct a new Small Modular Reactor (SMR). The study concluded that “siting an SMR generating station at Hanford is technically feasible and many benefits come from using the existing infrastructure, local workforce, and other regional assets.”
One of those regional assets, Oregon State University has designed the NuScale SMR, which could fill the bill for a demonstration project at the Hanford Site. This technology could readily be supported by a local facility to manufacture the reactor and other components for both domestic and international markets.
The Tri-Cities also has a unique opportunity to promote an energy park to demonstrate the integration of nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar energy together to provide enough reliable carbon-free energy to mitigate global climate change. The idea of an energy park is not new, but it would be new and rewarding for the Tri-Cities to rally behind an effort to support the Hanford Site as the ideal location for demonstrating the integration of our current electricity generators with a new generation of smaller nuclear power plants to deliver electricity to customers over the smart grid that Battelle scientists are studying.
For years the Tri-Cities and the Hanford Site have been denied any new nuclear programs or projects because of the slow progress of nuclear waste cleanup. While this concern remains, there is no credible science-based argument to deny new nuclear energy projects or an energy park to the Tri-Cities while cleanup progresses.
Just as Energy Northwest has emerged stronger from its turbulent past, so should the Tri-Cities now emerge from the stigma of Hanford defense waste to become a model for the transition from energy dependence on fossil energy to one dominated by clean carbon-free energy sources.