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The decommissioned nuclear reactor at Fort Belvoir. Photo courtesy Army Corps of Engineers

For 16 years, Fort Belvoir was the site of a nuclear power plant, the first of its kind to connect to a commercial power grid.

Developed by the Army as part of a movement to harness atomic energy for peaceful purposes, the plant -- called Stationary Medium Power Plant 1 or SM-1 -- began operations on April 8, 1957. It was the Army’s first functioning nuclear power plant and served mainly as a basis to develop more reactor facilities in the following years. But the reactor also provided partial power to Belvoir.

The plant was decommissioned in 1973 and  "most of the site’s radioactivity was removed then," according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Today, the Corps is planning to fully decommission and dismantle the plant.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ local Baltimore District is home to the Corps’ Regional Radiological Center of Expertise and has the lead on the decommissioning project, the Corps wrote in a news release.

The initial decommissioning effort of the SM-1 nuclear power plant took place in 1974, after it was deactivated.

Efforts then included removing the nuclear fuel and shipping the radioactive waste; addressing minor decontamination; sealing the reactor pressure vessel and installing appropriate security, warning signs and monitoring devices.

The Corps has conducted quarterly environmental monitoring of the site while much of the remaining radioactivity has been allowed to decay. 

The majority of SM-1’s remaining, low-level radioactivity is activated metals and the components of the former reactor system, the release said. All are secured within the walls of the facility's containment vessel, "which greatly reduces any potential risks to human health or the environment."

The Corps will next package all wastes within the containment area and remove in compliance with U.S. Department of Transportation protocols. After that, the dismantling begins.

“... at this point, our team will be dismantling and removing activated metals and components,” said Brenda Barber, the Army Corps’ Baltimore District project manager. “So, this is likely not what people think of when they think of radiological work. There are no drums of liquid waste, no controls rods, or anything like that.

“With the activated metals and large pieces of the old reactor, there’s also minimal risk of any sort of a ‘release’ into the air or a ‘spill’ of waste during the project."

Barber emphasized that safety is the Army Corps of Engineers’ number one priority.

“The safety and health of the installation, the local community and our workers are paramount to the success of our project,” Barber said. “We will be using proven controls and precautions to address safety and other engineering details during all stages of the decommissioning of the SM- 1.”

The final SM-1 decommissioning is still in the planning stages, with physical construction activity on site not expected to begin until 2020 at the earliest.

A public information and input meeting about the project will be held Tuesday, Jan. 29 at the Fairfax County South County Government Center (Room 201), 8350 Richmond Highway beginning at 6:30 p.m.

People who want to get periodic updates about the project, including public meeting notifications, may sign up for the Corps of Engineers’ project stakeholder e-mail list, by sending an e-mail to the Baltimore District Corporate Communication Office at CENAB-CC@usace.army.mil.

Anyone wishing to share imagery, documents or personal stories they may have associated with the SM-1 is welcome to e-mail CENAB-CC@usace.army.mil.

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