Columbia Nuclear Plant Sets Another Generation Record, Credits Good Performance

Operators of the Columbia Generating Station have set a new generation record at the nuclear plant 12 miles north of Richland, Wash., sending more than 9.7 million MWh to the Pacific Northwest power grid during 2018. 

The single 1,207-MW single GE-built Mark-2 boiling water reactor that is owned and operated by Energy Northwest—which comprises 26 public power member utilities across Washington state—has set new generation records five out of the past seven years.

Because the plant consistently surpassed generation records set first in 2012 (9.3 TWh), then in 2014 (9.5 TWh), and again in 2016 (9.6 TWh), the plant was a POWER magazine Top Plant in 2017. The plant won the award also due in part to an operations overhaul that began in 2009, when Columbia suffered a series of scrams that landed it on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) radar, and led it to vastly improve its performance.

A Remarkable Cost of Power

The company said in a Jan. 8 press release it achieved its latest generation record though Washington state has the lowest cost of retail power in the U.S. at a five-year average of 7.25 cents/kWh. During its 2018–2019 fuel cycle, Energy Northwest estimated Columbia’s cost of power will average 4.2 cents/kWh—down from 6.3 cents/kWh, adjusted for inflation, during its 2010–2011 cycle. In fiscal year 2016–2017, the plant’s cost of power was 4.70 cent/kWh cost of power; in fiscal year 2016–2017, it was 5.10 cent/kWh, and in fiscal year 2012–2013, it was 5.75 cents/kWh. “Columbia refuels every two years, resulting in higher cost of power during refueling years and lower cost during non-refueling, full-run years. As a result, [Energy Northwest] measures generation costs in two-year averages,” it explained. 

The nuclear plant’s low cost of power is especially noteworthy in the Pacific Northwest, a region whose 63.5 GW of installed nameplate capacity in 2016 was 54% hydro, 15% wind, 11% coal, 11% baseload natural gas, 3% natural gas peakers, and only 2% nuclear (from Columbia, the sole nuclear generator in the region). Since 2009, according to a Jan. 3 regional resource update from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, most regional resource additions have been natural gas and wind turbines, but also small-scale solar photovoltaic owing to heightened PURPA activity. “The price of solar has dropped significantly and is now competitive with wind and other resources,” the council noted. The region is also seeing the introduction battery energy storage, starting with pilots and concept projects. 

Columbia’s low cost of power is also remarkable when it is considered that several nuclear generators around the nation face severe financial pressure from cheaper power produced by natural gas plants, growing supplies of renewables, and stagnant electricity demand. Between 2013 and 2018, seven U.S. reactors were permanently shuttered, and 12 others are planned for closure through the mid-2020s. Dismal economics have stymied plans to build up to 30 new U.S. reactors, which were announced over the past 10 years. 

Fundamentally Achieved Through Good Performance

Mike Paoli, public affairs manager and chief communication officer at Energy Northwest, told POWER on Jan. 8 that the plant’s low cost of power was fundamentally achieved through good performance. To illustrate the point, he said Energy Northwest CEO Brad Sawatzke this week told employees: “Our costs have decreased every two-year operating cycle over the last eight years, and we’re very proud of that. We got there by doing two things, managing our budget and expenses, and by increasing the number of megawatts electric we put out. You put those two together and we continue to become more efficient for people here in the Northwest.”

Asked if the company could sustain the low cost of power, Paoli said: “It’s sustainable because our cost reduction initiatives began in 2010 and have been gradually applied so as not to impact plant performance. It’s not only a sustainable price, but through sustained and even improved plant performance, it will likely continue to decrease.”

Paoli explained that larger plants tend to have lower power costs owing to economies of scale. Columbia also doesn’t compete in a competitive market, which “don’t recognize the value of full-time, carbon-free generation, against subsidized renewables and cheap natural gas.” The plant sells all of its power at the cost of production to the Bonneville Power Administration, “and it helps that people in the Northwest tend to be very environmentally conscious,” he said. 

As the region’s sole nuclear plant—and a crucial baseload generator—Columbia helps balance intermittency from wind and solar, which are subsidized, Paoli noted. “Hydro remains very competitive, but it’s built-out and its generation is variable, meaning water levels vary with the seasons. This makes nuclear, as a flexible, full-time resource, a complementary fit to hydro as well as to intermittent wind and solar. Nuclear is also our region’s most reliable, carbon-free resource, with three to four times the capacity factor of renewables,” he said. 

Paoli said no state measures are currently needed to ensure Columbia keeps operating. “Nevertheless, our local Republican Party district, the state’s Democratic Party and the governor have all officially endorsed the economic and environmental value Columbia brings to the Northwest,” he said. “We anticipate operating at least through our current license date of 2043, and perhaps longer.”

—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).

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