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Energy NW Tour Targets Media

by Chris Mulick
Tri-City Herald, September 24, 1999

Energy Northwest took several of the region's reporters into the heart of its Plant No. 2 north of Richland on Thursday, hoping they would leave with a tale of success to tell.

Reporters from Seattle, Portland and Spokane watched workers at the Northwest's only operating nuclear power plant in action during a historic refueling outage and heard plant administrators describe the plant's financial turnaround.

Although the plant's power still is some of the priciest in the Northwest at a little more than 5 cents a kilowatt hour, production costs are down to 2.3 cents a kilowatt hour. The difference makes debt payments to cover the cost of building the plant - costs that must be paid regardless whether the plant produces power.

For comparison, residential customers in the Tri-Cities pay a little more than 2 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity.

Energy Northwest, a consortium of 13 Washington public utilities formerly known as the Washington Public Power Supply System, has made the savings by reducing its work force from 1,630 in 1994, when production costs were 3.5 cents a kilowatt hour, to 1,018 this year. And with power demand catching up with supply, the more than 1,100 megawatts of power the plant generates have become much more valuable to the Northwest.

That's a story Energy Northwest is eager to tell, especially considering its reputation from the 1980s when it abandoned construction of four other nuclear power plants.

"It's somewhat difficult to overcome our reputation," said Vic Parrish, Energy Northwest's chief executive officer.

That's why the reporters were invited to get as close a look as they could hope for. Suiting up in coveralls, hoods, hard hats and rubber boots and gloves, they were ushered through the plant's maze of security gates and into the containment building.

"Less than 500 people in the U.S. ever get to see what you're going to see," said Greg Smith, Energy Northwest vice president for generation.

Inside, reporters joined workers on a bridge overlooking the flooded reactor core, watching them maneuver a long mechanical arm to pull burnt-out nuclear fuel assemblies 75 feet below and replace them with new ones.

The 15-foot-long assemblies, emitting a purplish glow from fleeing electrons zooming through the water, were slowly pulled from the reactor, carried to a spent nuclear fuel pool nearby and inserted into a honeycomb of other used assemblies.

By allowing reporters so close, plant officials hoped to demystify the inner workings of their industry.

"The nuclear industry has done a poor job of public relations," Smith said. "People don't know what goes on here."

The 36-day refueling outage, which began last week, is scheduled to be the plant's shortest ever. During that time, 248 of the 764 assemblies in the core will be replaced, and others moved elsewhere in the core for more efficient use.

The outage also is historic because it marks the first time the plant will be fueled to run for longer than a year. Until recently, No. 2 was refueled each year because its power was deemed too expensive in the spring, when swollen rivers produce a glut of hydropower at federal dams. It has been the only nuclear power plant in the country to be refueled that often.

Now, the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal power marketer that sells the power produced at those dams and Plant No. 2, wants that electricity, hoping to sell excess juice to the Southwest. The plant will receive enough fuel to run until spring of 2001 during this outage, then will be refueled to run for two years. Extending those runs will reduce production costs further.

"Sooner or later, we had to make this transition," Smith said. "We really believe we are a different company."

Chris Mulick
Energy NW Tour Targets Media
Tri-City Herald - September 24, 1999

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