RICHLAND, Wash. -- On most days, a single plume of steam announces its presence to anyone within 30 miles of Washington's only nuclear power plant.
But for many, the publicly owned plant tucked away in the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a bit of mystery.
It was 12 years ago when the plant changed its name to Energy Northwest and gavethe mediatheir first look inside in the reactor building. It was the beginning of an effort to rid the plant's association with the failed Washington Public Power Supply System, nicknamed Whoops after it ended in a $2 billion blunder.
The Columbia Generating Station power plant was the only survivor, and if it is to survive much longer it needs a new operating license.
Is it OK to give this reactor, from the original Whoops construction project in the 70s another 20 or 40 years of operational life? asked Gerald Pollett, Co-Founder of Heart Of America Northwest. That's a serious problem.
Watchdog groups are concerned the plant is approaching 30 years of operation. But managers say this plant's age doesn't bother them.
You know it really doesn't because relative to the nuclear industry in our country this is a relatively young plant. [It] went online in the 1980s, said Brad Sawatzke, Chief Nuclear Officer for Energy Northwest.
At 27 years, this plant is younger than most U.S. plants. More than half are in their 30s and 40s. And Energy Northwest managers say they've kept it in top shape.
Columbia Generating Station, relative to inspections, is a top performer, said Sawatske, who when he researched this plant, he gladly agreed to run it. I saw a plant that has had some issues identified as part of the inspection process just like every other nuclear power plant in this country.
But with one glaring exception.
Well I think it speaks for itself that our one Northwest nuclear reactor has the worst shut down history in the country, said Pollett.
Documents obtained by KING 5 News confirm the Columbia Generating Station recorded five unexpected reactor shutdowns, or scrams, in 2009. The rest of the 103 nuclear plants in the nation combined for just 75 scrams that same year.
We had some maintenance issues, they were associated with the non nuclear side, said Sawatzke. The most of those if you look at them are associated with the turbine side of the house and not nuclear.
Engineers insist the reactor was never in danger, but scrams are the events managers try their hardest to avoid. They can tarnish a plant's otherwise enviable safety record.
That's what makes the plant's current procedure so delicate. Workers are in the middle of the critical refueling operation when the lid is lifted off the reactor to replace the spent fuel rod assemblies. The new fuel will keep the plant up and running for the next two years, and if all goes well, a new license next year will keep it's plume rising over the Southeastern Washington prairie until 2043.
The Columbia River Generating Station is currently licensed to operate through 2023. Federal inspectors will decide by next year if that will be extended to 2043.