Fuel Value & Performance

Fuel Purchase Saves Northwest $40 Million & Tens of Millions
More Through 2028

Energy Northwest’s history of strategic fuel purchases for Columbia Generating Station has resulted in some of the lowest fuel costs in the nation for Northwest beneficiaries of nuclear power.   

On May 15, 2012, Energy Northwest announced to the region its most beneficial fuel purchase to date – an agreement between the Tennessee Valley Authority, the U.S. Enrichment Corporation and the Department of Energy to turn depleted uranium (also called uranium tails) into low cost enriched uranium product for further future processing into nuclear fuel.  

According to the Bonneville Power Administration, the fuel agreement is now showing a more than $40 million savings to the fiscal 2014 - 2015 rate case, and will save customers tens of millions more through 2028. Every $40 million saved per rate case lowers that rate case by approximately 1 percentage point. 

Read more about fuel cost predictability, regional savings and environmental benefits


Fuel Performance

The nuclear industry has reduced fuel failure rates by about 60 percent since 1986, but failures still occasionally occur at a total industry rate of about five fuel rods per year. (The nation’s 99 commercial reactors contain approximately 30,000 – 75,000 rods each, depending on size.) In 2015 Columbia Generating Station identified its first failures since 2000– two pinhole-sized openings in separate fuel rods – ending a 13-year run that had earned industry wide recognition. (Fuel failure refers to a breach – from either a manufacturing defect or foreign material abrasion – in fuel pellet cladding that allows fission-product gases, such as xenon, to escape from the cladding into the closed-loop reactor circulation water.)

Minor fuel rod failures, as in Columbia’s recent case, do not jeopardize continued plant operation. Safe releases of radioactivity into circulation loops are strictly regulated; the trace gases detected in Columbia’s circulation system would have to be more than a thousand times higher to reach technical specification limits for continued plant operation, or to be an employee and public safety concern to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Although minor fuel rod failures do not present a risk to plant safety, they can, however, have an impact on reactor operations and, potentially, plant economics. Therefore coolant water in reactor closed-loop circulation systems is continuously monitored by chemists for gasses that may indicate fuel defects, allowing for quick identification and suppression (use of a fully-inserted control rod to suppress reactivity and gaseous release) of affected fuel.  

The November 2015 suppression of eight of Columbia’s fuel assemblies reduced the amount of available fuel for electricity generation from 70,288 to 69,552 rods, which will lead to slightly reduced reactor power (just 0.3 percent power reduction per day) approximately two weeks earlier than scheduled as the plant approaches its biennial refueling and maintenance outage in May 2017.


C-Bullet.jpg Quick Facts

Boiling water reactor (nuclear)

~ 1,207 megawatts (gross)
10 miles north of Richland, Wash.

Site Size:
~1,089 acres

Projected Levelized
Cost of Power (2014-2043):
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-Bullet.jpg High-Cost Mistakes
and False Claims

A $440 to $545 Million Research Error
To support an anti-nuclear policy position, a 2013 report sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility claimed Energy Northwest incurred a total loss of more than $270 million through the 2012 uranium purchase. In January 2014, Energy Northwest supplied the group calculations to help them understand what regional power entities have already validated – Energy Northwest’s 2012 fuel procurement brings between $171 and $275 million in savings to the region.
Tapping the Wrong Carbon Source
The physicians’ group also miscalculated the slight increase in Columbia’s carbon footprint as a result of Paducah uranium enrichment. The group used the wrong energy mix – the Kentucky state generation mix dominated by coal-fired generation – instead of the energy mix that was provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which included significant contributions from coal, hydro and nuclear, along with lesser contributions from natural gas and clean energy resources.  
Hyping the Freon Factor
The Paducah facility used Freon, a far greater greenhouse gas pollutant than CO2, in systems used to cool the process stream. But the CO2 emissions from Freon at Paducah were a relatively minor contribution to overall CO2 emissions, the low quantities of which still maintain a very low-carbon footprint for Columbia.
Irrelevant Market Comparisons for Federal Procurement
The physicians’ group also wrongly asserted – perhaps unaware of limitations imposed by federal policy – that more cost-effective market options for obtaining enriched uranium were available to the federal government. However, since the federal government required the uranium for national security purposes, federal policy required that the government obtain the material from the nation’s only U.S.-owned (Department of Energy) plant that uses only U.S. technology – the Paducah facility in Kentucky.