Columbia Generating Station

Calvin Chandler II
February 16, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: A Street Side View of the Columbia Generation Station in Richland, Washington. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With the potential shortage of fossil fuels, scientists have eagerly been searching for alternative sources of energy to supply the growing demand in America. One popular source today is that of nuclear energy. As of today roughly 19% of all electricity within the United States comes from nuclear power, making it the 3rd largest source of energy. [1] This nuclear energy is harnessed from 104 separate nuclear reactors within the United States. [1] While many of these reactors have shut down throughout the years, one reactor that persists is the Columbia Generating Station in Richland, Washington.

The Columbia Generating Station was first proposed in 1973 to address the growing population size and energy demand in Washington. However, it was not constructed and operational until late 1985 due to cost and construction delays. [2] 30 Years later it is now the biggest nuclear power provider in the Pacific Northwest providing 4% of total energy and it is the 3rd largest energy provider in Washington State behind the Grand Coulee and Chief Josephs dams. [2] Currently, the Columbia Generating Station produces 1,190 gross megawatts of electricity. [2] This accounts for 10% of all energy demands in Washington and is enough to power the entire city of Seattle. [2]

The Columbia Generating Station is a Mark II boiling water reactor. This type of reactor works via a reactor core, full of uranium isotopes, that heats surrounding water. Through this process, heat generated from the core evaporates water into steam, which rises and drives large turbines. Water for this station is drawn from the Columbia River, in which the name of the facility derives from. Energy Northwest, a public power joint operating agency, oversees operations of this facility as well as ensures licensing agreements through the state. Fig.1 to the right displays a picture of what the Columbia Generating Station looks like today.


The Columbia Generating Station has made an enormous contribution to energy production in the Pacific Northwest. While there has been much controversy about nuclear energy, new studies identify that favorability of nuclear energy has actually increased by 15% since the construction of this facility. [2] Reasons for why nuclear energy can be favorable are due to its reliability. Unlike other alternative energy sources such as hydro, solar and wind generators, nuclear energy does not rely upon weather conditions. Output is therefore constant and able to run during all times of the day. Another reason for why nuclear energy is popular is that unlike fossil fuel it produces no air pollutants. Since it works by heating water, in theory only water vapor is released into the environment. Each year this station is estimated to prevent over 4.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emission by serving as an energy substitute for fossil fuel. [2]


Nuclear energy does not come without concerns however. The most notably is the environmental concern. Each day this station requires 20 million gallons from the Columbia River. [2] While this is a fraction of the river's daily output, it can affect river water levels. Likewise, Washington State is very prone to earthquakes. If such an event occurred, it could possibly rupture the generators core similar to what happened to the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. This in turn would release nuclear material into the environment creating a severe threat to all life. If such material were emitted into the environment then consequences would proceed. Firstly, the costs associated with such a disaster would be catastrophic as surrounding farms and settlements would have to be abandoned. Secondly, this radioactive material would pollute the Columbia River, which would lead into the ocean killing much of the Northwest marine life. Any water consumption from this river would have to be avoided due to health risks. This risk of catastrophe creates reasons to be skeptical about nuclear energy if handled improperly. However, such risks are estimated to be extremely low as federal laws requires there to be standards for handling such nuclear material.

© Calvin Chandler II. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] B. K. Sovacool and S. V. Valentine, The National Politics of Nuclear Power: Economics, Security and Governance (Routledge, 2012).

[2] R. McCullough et al., Economic Analysis of the Columbia Generating Station (Createspace Independent Pub, 2013).