Energy Northwest's Return to Service
by Chris Mulick, Herald staff writer
Energy Northwest's expensive outage could enter its 20th day today.
The nuclear plant's operators still were not predicting Tuesday when it will return to service.
The Columbia Generating Station could be restarted as early as today, though attempts Sunday and again Tuesday morning were foiled by problems with the pumps and pipes that push water through the reactor.
In the meantime, it's costing ratepayers $1 million a day in lost power sales -- money that could otherwise help lower Northwest electric bills. The Bonneville Power Administration, which buys all the power from the 1,150-megawatt plant and supplies most of the electricity consumed in the Tri-Cities, plans to announce a new fall rate decrease today.
"This doesn't help our plan," said BPA spokesman Mike Hansen.
The plant was shut down July 31 when a pressure build-up inside the reactor vessel was detected because of a faulty digital device controlling a valve on pipes that deliver steam from the reactor.
Since then, crews have repaired the device, performed unplanned maintenance on two other massive steam pipe valves and determined the plant did shut down properly July 31. A pair of devices that initially indicated otherwise have been replaced.
Crews began to restart the plant over the weekend before a pump delivering water to the reactor tripped offline, forcing another shutdown. A second restart was halted Tuesday when problems were detected with a newly installed valve in the water delivery system, said Energy Northwest spokesman Brad Peck.
The outage couldn't come at a much worse time. The market value for power on the West Coast is highest in July and August when air conditioners in the Southwest drive peak demands. And lagging surplus power sales have been a key reason why Bonneville hasn't been more aggressively lower massive rate increases imposed three years ago.
"It's not as if it's eating into profits," Hansen said. "It's a direct loss to Northwest ratepayers."
Bonneville assumes in its budget the plant will spend some time in an unplanned outage, and Hansen noted the plant was coming off its longest-ever run of operations. But the outage has lasted longer than expected.
Bonneville has had to release more water from Grand Coulee dam to make up for the deficit -- water that won't be available to generate surplus power later.
"We're sensitive to the fact this is a lot of power that could be being produced, and that's truly unfortunate," Peck said. "We're going to get the plant healthy again before we think about running it."
If the plant can get back online soon without further problems, the rate decrease Bonneville plans to propose should be sustainable, said BPA spokesman Ed Mosey. He wouldn't say how far the proposal would lower rates if approved.
"It's going to be significant," Mosey said.
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