To no surprise to watchers of the Columbia Generating Station — the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant located about 150 miles up the Columbia River from Portland at Hanford, Wash. — three cracks have appeared in a key component, the condenser.
The condenser’s role is to help push water, the lifeblood of a nuclear power plant, through a system of pipes, tubes and turbines in making electricity. The reactor turns the water into steam. After leaving the turbines, the steam moves on to the condenser, which reduces it back to water. The process repeats itself in a continuing loop.
Energy Northwest, owner of the plant, replaced the condenser’s 48,000 bass tubes in 2011 because 2,000 of them had sprung leaks. But it did not replace the steel shell that encases the tubes. The cracks, which penetrated all the way through the shell wall, are a possible indication that components in the plant may have become brittle with age. Coupled with the plant’s mediocre safety and environmental record, they provide hard evidence of the significant safety risk that the plant poses to the region.
These cracks, which were never publicly disclosed by Energy Northwest, were revealed in invoices submitted by contractor Babcock & Wilcox, which welded them shut in 2011. The invoices, including photographs of each of the three cracks, were obtained in July 2013 by Cascadia Times in a public records request.
Energy Northwest said the cracks occurred during the tube replacement project. The shell might have become brittle with stresses caused by prolonged exposure to the wildly fluctuating temperatures that routinely occur inside a nuclear plant. These stresses can be exacerbated by “scrams,” or emergency shut downs.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which encourages plants to limit their frequency of scrams because of the additional stress, says that the Columbia plant has had more scrams than all but three of the 100 nuclear reactors in the US.
Born three decades ago under the cloud of one of the largest municipal bond defaults in US history, problems with the Columbia Generating Station’s hardware have brought nothing but headaches.
At the tail end of construction, the plant replaced its nuclear reactor containment system, which was found to contain serious defects. Designed by General Electric, the containment was unable to handle the stress caused by the extreme pressures that occur during an accident. High pressures contributed to explosions at three similar GE-designed nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.
In 1985, Energy Northwest (then known as the Washington Public Power Supply System) sued GE for $1.2 billion over the defects in the containment. Alan A. McDonald, the late federal judge from Yakima who heard the case, ruled that GE had intentionally hid safety defects in its containment designs. McDonald accused GE of playing a “sophisticated game of Russian roulette.”
Russian Roulette is a potentially lethal game of chance in which a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, and pulls the trigger. Two decades after McDonald ruled, the roulette gun went off at Fukushima.
The case, which was heard in Tucson, Ariz., received little media attention is Seattle, where the press and a vocal anti-nuclear community were preoccupied with WPPSS’ financial quagmire. The plant’s opening in 1984 was marred by WPPSS’ failure to complete four of its sister plants.
Several US utilities won large settlements in similar cases against GE. WPPSS received $297 million in services and $50 million in cash.
Now approaching 30 years of age, consider the now-renamed WPPSS plant’s operating record. The plant has:
• Violated federal nuclear safety rules more often than most other US plants, according to a recent GAO report;
• Been prosecuted and penalized by the Washington Department of Ecology for mishandling hazardous waste;
• Received poor marks in several recent evaluations by INPO (the Institute of Nuclear Plant Operations), a secretive industry group that evaluates nuclear power plant performance;
• Imposed the second-highest radiation dose on a nuclear plant workforce, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission;
• Released airborne gamma ray and beta particle effluent beyond the site boundary that increased by more than 26,400 percent from 1999 to 2010 for each type of radiation, as measured in millirads, according to annual radiological effluent reports;
In 2012, the NRC extended the plant’s license until 2043. Yet it failed to reveal the existence of cracks or this other information during the license renewal process. The public was denied a chance to pose the thorny questions that these details would have invited.
Cascadia Times investigated the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant and exposes these and many other details about its 30 years of operations in its report Hot, Dirty and Dangerous.