Is Columbia Generating Station Safe?

SPOKANE, Wash. - It's been two months since an earthquake and tsunami caused a partial melt down at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in Japan, calling into question the safety of nuclear energy both abroad as well as closer to home in the Tri-Cities.

About 120 miles from Spokane, in an area known for its rich history with the American atomic energy program, sits the Columbia Generating Station. Since their reactor went online in 1984 there has never been a release of radioactive material.

Almost every day the weather patterns of Eastern Washington put the Spokane area downwind of that plant. If they ever had a critical event at the station the problems there could be Spokane's problem in less than 24 hours.

In comparison, the Fukushima Daiichi power station was built on the Japanese coastline so it could use sea water to help cool its reactor core. However that proximity to the ocean became a liability.

"They handled the earthquake fine from everything we have found out so far, it was the tsunami," Brad Sawatzke with the Columbia Generating Station said.

Fukushima Daiichi was designed to withstand a 20-foot high wave but was hit with a tsunami as tall as the Spokane County Courthouse.

"That was beyond the design basis of their plant so thereby flooding their electrical switch gear and their diesel generators and that's what really set off the chain of events that gave them their issues," Sawatzke said.

Without electrical power, the Fukushima plant wasn't able to pump the water needed to keep its reactor from overheating.

Down at the Columbia Generating Station the plant won't have to deal with a tsunami for obvious reasons, but there are other potential threats the plant has to deal with.

"Obviously we're not going to have a tsunami here but there are other events that could happen that puts us in a situation where we're dealing with a loss off-site power so we have to find ways to mitigate that," John Dobken with Energy Northwest said.

Those "other events" that could cut power include earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, a collapse of the Grand Coulee Dam or a terrorist attack.

In the wake of 9/11, the FBI learned Osama bin Laden had instructed a second group of terrorists to fly a hijacked jetliner into a nuclear power plant; the Columbia Generating Station was named as one potential target.

Some of the measures put in place include a trio of diesel generators stored inside a building along with an underground, seven-day fuel supply, as well as auxiliary power and pumping equipment, ready at a moment's notice, stored away from the plant.

"We have a fire truck that is kept on site at a safe enough distance away that its protected yet would be able to respond with the ability to pump in numerous locations into the plant," Sawatzke said.

That fire truck, like similar ones used to help protect skyscrapers here in Spokane, can pump up to 1,000 gallons of water a minute. And, in a direct response to what happened in Japan, that fire truck is now being stored in an earthquake-proof garage.

"We've come up with different scenarios, different back-up systems to be able to restore power and cool down the core in the event something happened," John Dobken said.

If something does happen the engineers in charge of shutting down the reactor will do it from inside a lead-lined control room, surrounded by five-foot thick concrete walls.

The Columbia Generating Station is also protected around the clock against man-made threats as well. A security force protects the plant with everything from explosives detection equipment to employee bio-scans to bulletproof observation towers.

"These sites are very secure. We invest a lot of money each year into the security of these sites," Sawatzke said.

In fact, these same security precautions were in effect in Japan when the tsunami hit Fukushima Daiichi; that's because in the nuclear power business, sharing best practices is what's best for the industry.

Now experts are hoping an earthquake hasn't shaken the public's confidence in nuclear energy.

"I hope we take and learn from Fukushimia, but don't allow that to stall the industry. The industry, I think, is on the verge of a renaissance, because it's recognized as a carbon-free source for energy in this country," Sawatzke said.