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Originally published March 14, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified March 15, 2011 at 8:53 AM

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Washington's Hanford nuclear plant has more backup

The Northwest's single nuclear-power plant near the Hanford nuclear reservation is the same general type as those stricken in Japan, but has more backup systems and is more than a decade newer, utility officials say.

Seattle Times science reporter

The Northwest's single nuclear-power plant is the same general type as those stricken in Japan, but it has more backup systems and is more than a decade newer, utility officials say.

The Columbia Generating Station, at the Hanford nuclear reservation, was built to handle a magnitude 6.9 earthquake, said Rochelle Olson, spokeswoman for Energy Northwest, which operates the reactor. "We are designed to withstand the maximum projected earthquake or other natural disasters in our area," she said.

Like the damaged Japanese plants, the Hanford reactor is a boiling-water design from General Electric. Commissioned in 1984, the plant is larger and newer than the Japanese reactors, some of which date to the early 1970s.

Three additional emergency-cooling systems provide a cushion those plants lack, Olson said.

But new insights from more than a decade of geologic studies suggest Eastern Washington might be subject to more powerful quakes than anyone realized. Scientists have confirmed geologic faults that run from Richland, across the Cascades and as far west as Vancouver Island.

Many of the faults appear capable of generating earthquakes today — perhaps as big as magnitude 7.5, said U.S. Geological Survey researcher Brian Sherrod.

"The geologic record suggests there's a long history of big quakes over there," Sherrod said. "But we need more data."

Even though a magnitude 6.9 was the worst-case scenario when the plant was built, safety margins ensure it could withstand an even bigger quake, Olson said.

The Japanese plants appear to have stood up fairly well to violent ground shaking from the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the biggest in Japan's recorded history. Initial information indicated the tsunami surges wiped out the plants' backup cooling systems and pushed them to the brink of nuclear meltdown.

There were reports Tuesday that a nuclear containment vessel at one of the reactors may have been damaged by an explosion, while a fire at another reactor may have triggered a dangerous radiation leak.

University of Washington researcher Steve Malone pointed out it's still unclear whether damage from shaking as well as from the tsunami contributed to the nuclear crises.

The Columbia plant is five miles from the Columbia River to avoid flooding. The 1,150- megawatt reactor provides 9 percent of Washington's electricity. The plant has never had a radiation release, Olson said. But it has been plagued in the past by unplanned shutdowns.

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Last year, a review by the industry-funded Institute of Nuclear Power Operations singled the plant out as one of two in the country most in need of improvements in operations and "human performance."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, all U.S. nuclear plants were required to upgrade their backup systems, Olson said. Like the Japanese plants, the Columbia reactor was designed to rely on cooling water pumped from nearby — in this case, the Columbia River.

If power for those pumps sputters out, the reactor has three diesel generators to fall back on. If those fail, as happened in Japan, batteries can power the pumps eight hours.

After Sept. 11, the Columbia plant added a portable diesel generator that can recharge the batteries. It also added a system that can use steam from the reactor to power pumps and a fire truck that could pump water onto the core in extreme emergencies. A 30-day supply of cooling water is stored in ponds on-site.

The financial implosion in the 1980s of an ambitious plan to build five reactors in the Northwest soured the region on nuclear power for several decades. Proposals in the early 2000s to complete one of the unfinished plants, at Hanford, went nowhere, but nuclear proponents have more recently predicted a resurgence for an energy source that does not produce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Washington legislators introduced bills this year in the House and Senate to create a state task force to look at "the feasibility of pursuing additional nuclear-generating power" in the state and set goals for building at least five nuclear facilities in the state by 2040.

But even before the disaster in Japan, neither bill gained any traction.

Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, the sponsor of House Bill 1513, said the events in Japan have not changed his mind about the legislation.

"I feel very strongly that nuclear energy should be part of our strategic energy plan going forward," said Nealey.

Kathryn Higley, director of Oregon State University's Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics, said that even in the case of full meltdowns at the Japanese reactors, exposure to people along the West Coast of the United States would be minimal. "Any radioactive contaminants released will end up raining out of the atmosphere into the Pacific Ocean, where they will be diluted or absorbed."

Material from Seattle Times reporter Andrew Garber and Times archives are included in this report.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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