Inside the nation’s largest nuclear power plant: Palo Verde Generating Station

The nation’s largest nuclear power plant, Palo Verde Generating Station west of Phoenix, provides 70 percent of the state’s clean energy. No carbon emissions. No air pollutants.

Year after year, Arizona’s nuclear power plant is recognized among the best in the nation for safety and reliability by the industry’s Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

These are a couple of facts the plant’s Chief Nuclear Officer Robert Bement wants the public to know. As CNO, Bement is responsible for everything “nuclear-associated” at the plant.

The former nuclear-trained submarine electrician and licensed senior reactor operator spoke with Chamber Business News recently during a tour of the plant, during which one of the three reactors was undergoing a shutdown for refueling.

Bringing in the light

The tour is part of the plant’s efforts to open up its doors to make the public more aware of how important Palo Verde is to Arizona and the Southwest, Bement said.

“We used to run nuclear power plants like the Navy. Run silent. Run deep,” said Bement, who started his career in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear-submarine electrician.

As renewable energy has become more of a topic in the political arena, facts about how renewable and nuclear energy complement each other to benefit the environment and ratepayers is often lacking, Bement said.

“What we do is so important. People sell fear of nuclear plants, but millions of lives have been saved by clean nuclear energy,” he said, referring to nuclear’s zero carbon emissions.

Now, the plant reaches out regularly to the media, schools, science teachers and others to educate and excite people about potential careers in the nuclear field.

A peek inside

With the reactor down for refueling, the news media were invited to take a peek inside the 4,000-acre Palo Verde complex.

Reactors are shut down every 18 months to be refueled and undergo preventive maintenance. The process takes about three months and involves about 3,000 employees.

Media outlets were able to tour the site where nuclear waste is stored in steel-and-concrete columns — earthquake proof. They were also allowed to enter the containment area where the reactor sits in a large, square concrete enclosure.

One-third of employees are veterans

Like Bement, about one-third of Palo Verde employees have military backgrounds. It shows.

Every procedure must be completed with military precision and care.

Safety and security measures are intense, with armed guards and the company’s own fire department on site. Visitors must go through metal, explosives and radiation detectors when moving through the complex. Delivery trucks undergo two inspection stops. An inspector from the U.S. NRC is always on-site.

Scientists, politicians, Bill Gates go nuclear

Many scientists and others consider nuclear energy an important solution for climate change. Business moguls like Bill Gates, utilities like Westinghouse Electric Company and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have been pushing for more innovation and investment in nuclear energy.

There are many reasons to be excited about nuclear energy, Bement said. Here’s why…

Nuclear power saves lives

Palo Verde is the largest producer of clean-air energy in the nation, serving more than 4 million people in the Southwest and generating more than 32 million megawatt-hours of electric power annually.

Power generation operations to date at Palo Verde have offset the emission of almost 484 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is the equivalent of taking up to 84 million cars off the road for one year; more than 253,000 tonnes of sulfur dioxide; and 618,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxide, according to the operator of the plant.

Minuscule waste from nuclear energy

For its massive output, nuclear energy produces a miniscule amount of waste.

If all the nuclear waste were collected from one person’s use over a lifetime, it would only fill one soda can, Bement explained.

All of the nuclear waste collected at Palo Verde over the past 30 years is stored on-site. The waste is currently stored in cement-and-steel containers that take up a space the size of a football field.

Only plant in the world not on a lake

Palo Verde is the only large nuclear power plant in the world that is not located near a body of water. Instead, it pumps treated sewage from nearby cities and towns to treat it and reuse it for the plant’s cooling needs.

Self regulation and federal oversight working

After the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, when a reactor suffered a partial meltdown, the industry stepped up and created a self-regulating body, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO).

INPO sends experts to conduct plant evaluations at nuclear stations and identify strengths and areas for improvement as a method to share best practices and common weaknesses.

Since INPO started, plant safety has gone up dramatically across member institutions, Bement said.  Palo Verde consistently receives the most favorable score, called an “INPO 1.”

The NRC also oversees the plant through licensing, inspection and regulatory enforcement.

Palo Verde financial boon for West Valley

As the nation’s largest energy producer, Palo Verde provides an annual economic impact of more than $2 billion to the state, Bement said. Of that, $55 million is property taxes, and over half comes from ratepayers outside the state.

Throughout the year, the plant employs about 2,500 full-time employees. During shutdowns, an additional 800 to 1,000 employees are hired.

Learn more facts about nuclear power from the federal Office of Nuclear Energy.

Victoria Harker

Graham Bosch

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