When you turn on your television, flip a light switch or open the refrigerator, do you ever think about where that electricity is coming from or what goes into making it?
If your answer is no, you’re probably not alone. But ensuring electricity gets from point A to point B is something those working for Arizona Public Service and the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station take seriously.
The station, located on more than 4,000 acres west of Phoenix off Interstate 10 near the small town of Tonopah, is the largest of its kind in the country. Construction began in 1976 and took a decade to complete and with it came a price tag of $5.9 billion. The plant employs 2,600 people and during set outages [which the plant is currently in], that number grows by as many as 1,000.
Power from Palo Verde is distributed to millions of people not just in Arizona but throughout the Southwest. Sedona is no exception.
“Palo Verde makes up about 30 percent of our overall fuel mix,” APS spokesman Alan Bunnell said. “The balance is made from coal, natural gas, solar and other renewables. So simply put, Sedona customers receive about 30 percent of their power from Palo Verde. It’s also our lowest-cost energy source, in addition to being carbon-free.”
On Thursday, April 14, a group of invited media members toured the plant, which included an hour-long presentation, security briefing, the tour itself and follow-up questions and answers.
Safety and security are two of the plant’s highest priorities, staff said. It was evident as during the tour those guests went through several security screenings that detect weapons and explosives. Escorts were required the entire way and heavily-armed security guards could be seen throughout the plant. From a safety standpoint, staff wear hard hats and protective eye wear in many areas while those entering the plant’s containments building must don protective wear from head to toe.
And even though Palo Verde broke its own record of producing 32.5 million megawatts of power in 2015 — up from 32.3 million the year before — Jack Cadogan, vice president of nuclear engineering, said it’s not just about the numbers.
“We keep setting records every year,” he said. “But, we don’t set out to do that — there are no production goals. What we do set each year are safety and efficiency goals.”
In an interview with the Sedona Red Rock News prior to the presentation, Site General Plant Manager Chuck Kharrl acknowledged that when some hear the word “nuclear,” a bit of uncertainty or fear comes along with it. He said that’s why they have established information centers, offer 20 to 30 tours a year and have hands-on exhibits so that the public can “see what nuclear power is all about.”
“Part of that fear is the unknown,” he said. “We want to let people know what we do here and be as transparent as possible. Through that we hope the public can see why we’re considered the crown jewel of U.S. nuclear power plants — one that all other plants look up to.”
The Power of Nuclear
During their presentation, Cadogan and Kharrl stressed the value of nuclear power. They said one uranium fuel pellet creates as much energy as one ton of coal or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. A nuclear power plant refuels once every 18 months [which they are currently doing], replacing one-third of fuel each time. In addition, they said nuclear power plants are the most efficient source of electricity, operating 24/7 at a 92 percent average capacity factor. And, nuclear plants produce 63 percent of the nation’s carbon-free electricity.
“There are 99 nuclear power plants in the country, which supply 20 percent of the nation’s power,” Cadogan said.
He said that due to this country’s low uranium reserves, the vast majority of what’s used at Palo Verde and the 98 others, must come from other countries, like Australia. The uranium is turned to pellets and used to operate the plant.
Like Bunnell, Cadogan pointed out that Palo Verde makes up about one-third of APS’ overall fuel mix. He compared their decision to do that to someone’s own 401k plan in which they maintain a diverse portfolio.
“You don’t want to have all your horses hitched to one post,” he said.
Learning from Others
On March 11, 2011, the largest recorded earthquake in Japan triggered a massive tsunami that not only killed nearly 20,000 residents but flooded the Fukishima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The result was a nuclear meltdown and the release of radioactive material.
Kharrl, who recently toured what remains of that plant, said the U.S. has implemented post-Fukushima safety requirements, well ahead of regulatory deadlines. These efforts include significant safety and resilience against major events. In the end, these improvements provide onsite and offsite redundant electrical and water capabilities, as well as other major event response equipment and materials.
“We’re designed for seismic events — we’re in great shape,” Kharrl said. “But what we learned [from Fukushima] is that things can happen that you don’t expect. That’s why it’s important to always have a back-up power plan and the ability to pump water into the plant from other sources.
“Every time there’s any type of negative consequences to any [nuclear] plant across the country we evaluate it to ensure it doesn’t happen to us. We all learn from one another. There are no competitive secrets kept in our industry.”
Where’s the Water?
When one approaches the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, one of the first things noticeable is the steam rising hundreds of feet into the air. But unlike many plants of its kind, Palo Verde has no lake, river or ocean nearby to draw in water to operate and cool the plant. It’s the only power plant in the world that uses reclaimed wastewater.
The water is transported through 36 miles of pipeline along I-10 from a pair of wastewater treatment plants in Phoenix. Nearly 105 million gallons of gray water are pumped to the station every day with about 78 million gallons of that evaporating in the atmosphere.
“At Palo Verde, the water undergoes further treatment at the site’s water reclamation facility — one of the world’s largest advanced water treatment facilities,” information from APS states. “Treated water is stored in the site’s 85-acre and 45-acre reservoirs for use in the cooling towers. The nine cooling towers require 40,000 to 50,000 gallons of water [enough to fill more than 300 swimming pools] a minute when the three generating units are operating at full power.”
This arrangement benefits the local economy through the purchase of 20 billion gallons of sewage water each year. It also conserves natural resources such as groundwater for other uses like drinking water for local residents and visitors.
“Our storage units hold enough water to run for 15 days if our water supply were to cease,” Cadogan said. “To provide this amount of energy without a water source is really incredible.”
Who Owns Palo Verde?
|The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station is operated by APS, which is one of seven stakeholders. Ownership includes:
|Sedona customers receive about 30 percent of their power from Palo Verde Nuclear Generaing Station, which can generate up to 3,942 megawatts when operating at full capacity.
The rest of Arizona's electricity comes from: