WA Nuke Refueling Outage Begins

Tuesday, May 12, 2015 @ 04:05 PM gHale

Workers at Energy Northwest are preparing to install three new 175-ton power transformers at the Columbia Generating Station in Richland, WA, as the nuclear facility started a refueling outage this past weekend.

That refueling outage started Saturday and has a schedule to be back up and operating in 42 days, officials said.

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When it starts operating again after replacing about one third of its fuel, the new transformers should allow for increased output of electricity and improved efficiency and reliability. That should translate to cost savings for electricity users in the Northwest.

Columbia Generating Station sells its power at-cost to the Bonneville Power Administration, and 92 Northwest utilities receive a percentage of its output.

A portion of the fuel in the plant has undergone replacement every two years since 2001 — before that the refueling outages were annual — making this the plant’s 22nd refueling.

Energy Northwest is spending a budgeted $106 million on this outage, with about $28.5 million of that capital costs.

The outage will not only to replace 248 of the plant’s 764 nuclear fuel assemblies, but also will take care of maintenance and upgrades that can be difficult when the plant is operating. Fuel ends up replaced after it has been in the core for six years.

Outages end up planned for the late spring so the reactor shuts down at a time when rivers are seasonally high, generating great amounts of hydroelectric power, and the demand for electricity dips between winter heating and summer air-conditioning.

Despite drought conditions, BPA’s hydropower production is “doing OK” now and into the summer months, said Michael Hansen, BPA spokesman. Much of the water used for BPA hydropower comes from higher elevations in Montana, Idaho and British Columbia where the snowpack has been good.

However, the hydropower outlook could change by August and September if the summer is warm and runoff is fast, he said.

Energy Northwest recognizes that with generally lower snowpacks in the Northwest it is important to get the plant operating on schedule before the summer warms up, said Brad Sawatzke, Energy Northwest chief operating officer.

Columbia Generating Station, the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear energy plant, generates 1,170 megawatts of electricity, which is about the amount of electricity used by a city the size of Seattle. It is the third largest electricity generator in Washington, behind only the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.

One of the major projects planned for this outage could increase the nuclear plant’s output capacity by at least five megawatts, according to Energy Northwest.

The project will install more accurate ultrasonic instruments for measuring the water flow through the reactor core. More water flow increases the electricity produced, and the new instruments will allow the water flow to run closer to the maximum possible, Sawatzke said.

Another project will install an improved system to measure reactor power, allowing for better fuel use. Less electricity will end up needed for reactor operations, allowing more of the electricity to supply customers.

The third major project will be installing three new 175-ton power transformers, which cost $9.1 million. The current transformers for electricity produced at the plant have been in use since the plant began delivering power to the Northwest in 1984.

The new transformers should ensure plant reliability and serve the nuclear power plant through the end of its operating life, scheduled for the end of 2043, according to Energy Northwest.

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