Nuclear power plant shut down 50 years ago to be dismantled | Polarjournal
Army Corps of Engineers officials with potential contractors, touring the SM-1A Fort Greely nuclear power plant. (Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers)

Although the small nuclear reactor at the SM-1A plant at Fort Greely, in Alaska, last provided power in 1972, it is only now planned ro be dismantled. The Army Corps of Engineers is now moving forward with a project to decommission the mothballed nuclear power plant. An agency team awarded a contract to develop plans for dismantling the Cold War-era relic over the next 10 years after a three-week visit to Fort Greely in August 2019.

Some of the radioactive components of SM-1A that have not been removed are encased in cement in the cylindrically shaped steam vessel at left. (Photo: KUAC)

Because of its remote location, Fort Greely was selected as one of the first U.S. military posts to have a compact nuclear power reactor to generate heat and electricity under the auspices of the Army Nuclear Power Program. The facility was built at the height of the Cold War. The SM-1A was a field prototype of a medium-sized nuclear reactor that the Army had developed during this time for use at remote military installations. The nuclear power plant was delivered and installed between 1960 and ’62. The SM-1A pressurised water reactor was commissioned on March 13, 1962 and decommissioned in 1972 after only 10 years. During decommissioning, the fuel and waste were disposed of while the radioactive components of the reactor were encased in cement. This procedure reduced the amount of radiation to a level that was considered safe. Since then, the plant has been continuously monitored.

The facility did not function as Pentagon officials had hoped. They found that the upfront costs were much higher than expected and that the plant cost more to maintain than a diesel power plant. In addition, the reactor was prone to malfunctions. Therefore, the nuclear reactor was shut down and replaced by a diesel-fuelled power and heat plant.

During a visit to the site, John Litz catches a glimpse of a massive hatch above the containment vessel leading to the SM-1A. The entrance has been closed since the nuclear reactor was shut down in 1972. (Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers)

The Army Corps of Engineers has released a document outlining plans to dismantle the SM-1A nuclear power plant at Fort Greely. The Corps has scheduled two meetings in late March to discuss the draft environmental review and encouraged public comment.

The draft environmental assessment examines the impact of dismantling the plant on the environment. According to project manager Brenda Barber, who leads a team from the Corps’ Baltimore office, it will take years to dismantle and dispose of the rest of the nuclear plant. “We plan to mobilize the site in April 2023 with a completion date of 2028,” she said in an interview last week.

Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. John Litz and Baltimore District Project Manager Brenda Barber share ideas on dismantling and decommissioning the Greely Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers)

Some parts of the existing diesel power plant are still connected to the old plant. To disassemble and remove the remaining core components, the project contractor must first carefully separate the two utility systems so as not to interrupt the flow of heat and electricity.

“So we’re planning on separating those two ends of the facilities so that we can implement our work without impacting care at Fort Greely,” said project manager Brenda Barber.

“It’s safe to say that the health of the workers and the environment is not at risk,” Brenda Barber opined. She said the project is still in its early stages and will not be completed until 2026 at the earliest.

Barber said the Corps awarded a $4.6 million contract in December to a Virginia-based firm to develop a long-term plan for the project. Among other things, this will help agency officials determine how much of SM-1A will remain after it is decommissioned.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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