Environmental Impact

An operating nuclear facility does not release carbon dioxide or result in any other significant air pollutants, although on a cold clear day the public may see tall thick columns of pure water vapor rising from a nuclear plant’s cooling towers as part of the water cooling process.

As a result of this clean electricity generation, Columbia Generating Station annually prevents a fossil fuel replacement equivalent of about 4.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere (3.6 million if natural gas is used as a sole source option.) Additionally, one uranium pellet is equivalent to the energy provided by 149 gallons of oil; 1,780 pounds of coal; or 17 million British thermal units of natural gas.

1 uranium pellet is equivalent to the energy provided by:


Carbon Footprint

Although nuclear electricity generation does not directly produce any significant air pollution, the mining, processing and transportation of nuclear fuel all require energy inputs, which are typically drawn from carbon-emitting energy sources. Construction of a nuclear power plant also generates carbon dioxide and other air emissions from the fabrication of steel, production of concrete, transportation of construction materials, and operation of construction equipment. These combined steps represent a nuclear plant’s carbon footprint.

All sources of energy, including renewables, have a measurable carbon footprint, as illustrated below.


River Intake & Discharge

Nuclear power plants withdraw a considerable amount of water from adjacent water bodies for cooling purposes, but those withdrawals are typically insignificant within the context of surrounding water volume.

Columbia Generating Station employs a recirculating cooling system that withdraws approximately 20 million gallons of water from the Columbia River daily. This represents little if any impact given that 80 million gallons pass downriver through The Dalles every minute. The nuclear plant would have to withdraw more than six times its current river intake to trigger the Environmental Protection Agency’s minimal threshold for industrial water intake regulations.

Additionally, with an average Columbia River low-flow rate of more than 23 million gallons per minute through the Hanford Reach, the two million gallons of water per day that Columbia Generating Station releases back into the river has minimal direct impact on the temperature of the receiving water. The nuclear plant’s titanium condenser components also prevent dissolved metals, which salmon are particularly sensitive to, from entering the ecosystem.

Water in the plant’s cooling system does not come into contact with water used in the reactor, so radioactive materials are not present in the plant’s effluent stream. Discharge of water from the power plant into the river is also regulated by the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program, which establishes plant-specific effluent limitations for a variety of factors such as flow volume, temperature, pH and turbidity.

Used Nuclear Fuel

Columbia is not Hanford
Columbia Generating Station near Richland is not associated in any manner with the Department of Energy’s Hanford Site – the nation’s largest environmental cleanup site (buried radioactive materials) created as a result of 50 years of Cold War nuclear weapons production.

Used fuel cannot leak
Unlike the tons of nuclear waste buried at Hanford, Columbia’s small amount of low-enriched used nuclear fuel is metal; it cannot leak. It is stored securely in above-ground, 185-ton, aircraft-impact resistant, concrete and steel, dry storage casks.

Storage takes very little space
These casks, holding most of Columbia’s 30 years of used fuel, occupies a surface space roughly the size of the local Barns & Noble book store, or a space 1/20th the size of Bonneville Power Administration’s nearby Ashe electrical substation.

Used fuel remains valuable
If reprocessed, the remaining fuel potential within those and similar casks at other nuclear facilities could power the next generation of nuclear plants for several hundred years with clean, carbon-free energy. (The United States currently does not reprocess used nuclear fuel because, at an average cost of just 15 cents per uranium fuel pellet, it is more economical to continue mining uranium.)

Read more on our Used Fuel Storage page.

nuclear101.png Learn more about nuclear power 

C-Bullet.jpg Quick Facts

Boiling water reactor (nuclear)


Approximately 1,190 megawatts (gross)

10 miles north of Richland, Wash.

Site Size:
~1,089 acres

Projected Levelized
Cost of Power

4.7 - 5.2 cents/kWh
Comparison Costs*: 
Natural Gas: 6 - 14 cents/kWh
Wind: 7 - 10 cents/kWh
Solar: 11 - 42 cents/kWh 
*Levelized costs according to the Energy Information Administration. Levelized cost represents the per kilowatt-hour cost (in real dollars) of building and operating a generating plant over an assumed financial life and duty cycle. Key inputs to calculating levelized costs include overnight capital costs, fuel costs, fixed and variable operations and maintenance costs, financing costs and an assumed utilization rate for each plant type. 

C-History.jpg History

Construction Permit Issued:
March 1973
NRC Issued Plant Operating License:
December 1983
Operating License Expiration:
December 2043
First Electricity Produced:
May 1984
Commercial Operation:
December 1984
First Refueling Completed:
April 1986