When the Bonneville Power Administration said “Whoops!”: Processing electronic records of the Bonneville Power Administration

Today’s post is by Cooper Clarke, Archives Technician in the Electronics Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

stock certificate
Specimen Washington Public Power Supply System Nuclear Project No 1 Revenue Bond, Series 1975, Redeemable First Day of July 2017 [blank]_PAGE 1 CROPPED.jpg

In the shadow of Olympic National Park sit the remains of two concrete cooling towers and side by side containment buildings for nuclear reactors that were never finished. The planned Washington Nuclear Projects 3 and 5 in Satsop, Washington were almost three-quarters of the way completed in 1983 and 1981 when the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the Washington Public Power Supply System estimated completion would cost billions more than initially expected and stopped construction. The BPA and Supply System attempted to pivot towards nuclear power in the 1970s by planning and constructing a total of five nuclear reactors, but only one was ever finished. The Bonneville Power Administration’s entanglement with the Washington Public Power Supply System led to the largest municipal bond default in American history, over a decade of litigation, and led the press to spoof the state agency’s acronym (WPPSS) with the nickname “whoops.”

The monumental undertaking of simultaneously constructing five nuclear power plants was spurred on by BPA forecasts that electricity demand would soon exceed the region’s generating capacity. The projects were funded by the seemingly easy financing provided by municipal bonds. This presented a significant problem when BPA and the Supply System halted construction, and the bondholders started to demand their money back. Further complicating things, elaborate contracts left the BPA holding the ball to financially back three of the projects regardless of their completion or profitability. This resulted in an onslaught of litigation by nearly every party involved in the projects and billions of dollars of debt taken on by the BPA. 

The records documenting this litigation were scanned by BPA and transferred to the National Archives, Electronic Records Division. After processing was completed by another staff member, I was assigned the task of intellectually arranging and describing the records for the Catalog. What initially began as an uphill climb to untangle the contextual history of the records and their relation to one another turned out to be a captivating description project. Here is a glimpse into the history these records document and how the Electronic Records Division describes and makes available records for the Catalog.

Washington Nuclear Project Property Map
WNP-3 [Washington Nuclear Project] History and Status for IOU’s [Investor Owned Utility] Property Tax Assessment [with property maps], September 1, 1988_PAGE 9.jpg

The Bonneville Power Administration, within the Department of Energy, serves to market electricity to consumers in the Pacific Northwest. The Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) began in 1957 as a consortium of local public utilities from across the state to build and operate power generating plants. With their overlapping missions, the BPA and WPPSS had a successful track record of partnering on projects in which WPPSS would construct and operate a power generating facility and the BPA would sell and distribute the generated power.

In the mid-1960s, the BPA anticipated a sharp increase in electrical load demands in the Pacific Northwest. The agency considered nuclear power to be the successor to hydroelectric, for which the capacity was thought to be “saturated” by that point. To meet expected capacity demands, the Supply System and the BPA began planning nuclear plants in the late 1960s and started construction between 1972 and 1977. The plants were referred to as the Washington Nuclear Projects (WNP) 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. The first three projects were backed and guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the United States through the BPA and municipal bonds. The BPA was not involved in projects 4 and 5, but because they were constructed side by side (dual sites 1 and 4 in Hanford and dual sites 3 and 5 in Satsop), alleged overlap of resources and liability became the subject of litigation. By the end of the 1970s the Supply System was the largest municipal borrower in the country, over $8 billion in total.

Postcard announcing lawsuit
Resolution Opposing BPA’s [Bonneville Power Administration] Suit Against Initiative 394 prepared by Lewis County “I” Rate, April 16, 1982_PAGE 1 CROPPED.jpg

This is where it gets complicated. The local public utilities that made up the “Participants” of the Supply System had purchased shares in the potential generating capacity. The fine print of the agreement stated they still had to foot the bill regardless of whether the Supply System ever completed the plants. The BPA was in a similar situation because by law the agency is barred from owning electrical generating facilities, only the transmission lines and infrastructure used to deliver the electricity. To sidestep this, the BPA and the Supply System created “net-billing agreements.” These agreements were complex, so I’ll let a record speak for itself:

“Through the net-billing agreements, BPA has acquired the entire electric energy capability of Project Nos. 1 and 2, and 70 percent of the capability of No. 3. BPA is obligated to pay, pursuant to the net-billing agreements, all annual costs of Project Nos. 1, 2, and 3, including debt service on the bonds issued to finance these projects, whether or not a project is completed, operable, or operating…”

\TR-0305-2019-0016\5 of 26\WNP-4_5 CREDITORS RIGHTS CORRESPONDENCE WITH BONDHOLDERS\32_WNP_4_5_Creditors_Rights_Corr_Bond_Holders.pdf

The construction slowdowns, contract issues, and the energy crisis of the 1970s led to ballooning budgets which eventually made completion of projects 4 and 5 impossible. These projects, without the backing of the BPA, were canceled in 1982 and the Supply System defaulted on over $2 billion in bonds used to fund the projects. In 1983, the Washington State Supreme Court determined the contracts between the Supply System and the Participants were illegal. The Court ruled the Supply System did not have the authority to enter these “take or pay” contracts and the Participants were not on the hook for the bonds. This put the three remaining projects in jeopardy, and the BPA mothballed Projects 1 and 3, while Project 2 was completed in 1984 and continues to operate as the Columbia Generating Station. It took until 1988 for the first settlements to be reached and another seven years before all the litigation was settled in 1995.

Legal Documents re: case
Bonneville Power Administration’s Brief In Response To The May 11, 1989 Order_PAGE 1.jpg
memo re: settlement
Handwritten memo regarding Settlement, September 1989_PAGE 1 CROP.jpg

The series I worked on specifically covers the litigation resulting from the BPA’s involvement in the Washington Nuclear Projects. Other records documenting the Washington Nuclear Projects could be found in other BPA series or in the records of other agencies. The series primarily contains court records and correspondence documenting the dozens of lawsuits. BPA was a party to or initiated, but there are some records documenting electrical load estimates and the construction. There were several lawsuits which required lengthy and contentious discovery; some records within the series may have been received as a part of this discovery. Additionally, there are records documenting investigations of the bonds and default by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the General Accounting Office (now Government Accountability Office). Finally, there are records relating to correspondence with members of Congress, Congressional hearings, and investigations.

Report re: settlement of case
Revised Environmental Assessment – The Proposed Settlement of Washington Nuclear Project #3 Lawsuits, August 1985_PAGE 1.jpg

Once the dust had settled and the BPA and the Supply System resolved the lawsuits, the records were stored away in the Seattle Federal Records Center awaiting their final disposition of transfer to the National Archives. The records were scheduled as permanent because this litigation rose to the level of “historically significant” as defined by the BPA records schedule. The BPA made the decision to transfer the records electronically and scanned the paper, creating PDF files of each record. 

My first step was to create a spreadsheet listing all the files in the series, to associate an item title with an access copy of the record. This spreadsheet is later used to create Catalog descriptions in bulk. I used NARA’s File Lister tool to create the description spreadsheet, this tool is also used at various steps during accessioning and processing. For this series, item level description meant opening each file, quickly assessing the contents and how it fits in the context of the series, and then creating a title for each file. 

To ensure consistent description of item titles for this long term project, I created a title naming convention document for my own reference. I listed out frequently encountered record types and how I would format the title. For example, I always formatted the title for letters and memos as “Letter/Memo from Jane Doe to John Doe regarding Subject Line, Month DD, YYYY.” This translated to “Letter from Harvard P. Spigal to Craig Doupe, February 14, 1986.” I also made a standard format for court filings, faxes, news clippings, and handwritten notes. 

When creating the item titles, it’s important to consider how a researcher will discover a record. Traditional archival collections have a limited means of accessing records; unless the collection has been digitized, you must request a box in person. The context of the collection is always in place in the next folder. Electronic records can be discovered both in the context of their larger collection or as a single item in a search. Each item description should be understandable on its own and in the context of the series or file unit.

memo re: Settlement of case
Memo from General Counsel to Administrator regarding Strategy for WNP 45 [Washington Nuclear Project] Settlement, June 11, 1985_PAGE 1.jpg

I arranged the files based on the order in which BPA maintained them; this is reflected in the file units and the order of the items. I determined this by assessing the folders the records were received in and based on an old Transmittal Receipt that was used by BPA to transfer the paper records to the Seattle Federal Records Center. The folders and information from the Transmittal Receipt also informed the creation of the file units. Additionally, the original folder structure has been preserved and is documented in the General Note field of each Catalog record.

The Washington Public Power Supply System Litigation Files may seem bureaucratic and dry, but it can give insight into the current perceptions of nuclear power, provide an understanding of highly complex and contentious lawsuits involving the Federal government, and the history of the Bonneville Power Administration and the Pacific Northwest. I hope this blog provided some insight into the description of electronic records at a time when the Federal government is transitioning to all electronic record keeping.

Letter from G. F. Bailey to Arlee Holm regarding Project No. 1 Proposed Modification of Uranium Allocation Schedules [copy 1 of 4], May 6, 1981_PAGE 2.jpg

Sources and further reading:

Daniel Pope. Nuclear Implosions: The Rise and Fall of the Washington Public Power Supply System. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Jeremiah D. Lambert. The Power Brokers: The Struggle to Shape and Control the Electric Power Industry, Chapter 3, Bonneville Power: Overreach and Disaster. MIT Press, 2016.

Erik Lacitis. “Satsop courts Hollywood to use old nuke plant for filming.” The Seattle Times. September 7, 2013. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/satsop-courts-hollywood-to-use-old-nuke-plant-for-filming/

David Wilma. “Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS).” The Free Encyclopedia of Washington State History. July 10, 2003. https://www.historylink.org/file/5482

Daniel Pope. “A Northwest distaste for nuclear power.” The Seattle Times. July 31, 2008. https://web.archive.org/web/20190305004453/http:/old.seattletimes.com/html/opinion/2008082460_nukeop31.html

Charles P. Alexander. “Whoops! A $2 Billion Blunder: Washington Public Power Supply System.” Time. August 8, 1983. https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,955183,00.html

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