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

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Northern Virginia’s very own nuclear reactor facility at Fort Belvoir, a product of our country’s initial research into nuclear power generation, is finally going to be torn down next year. The atomic core has long since been taken away and according to the Army Corps of Engineers, the still slightly radioactive components will be shipped off to long term nuclear storage sites. After which the buildings will be torn down and the Army will be free to do with the property what it pleases. Right now, the Army has no plans for the property, save just to leave the old site to nature.

The SM-1, as it was called, was the first nuclear electrical generating plant in America to feed into an electrical power grid. It was a noteworthy first. The Army, along with the Atomic Energy Commission, proved it could be done.

However, while the SM-1 existed in the shadows, it was the source of at least a few urban myths — some rather silly — but, for the record, Gunston Cove, near the location of the site, never glowed green at night. Or, yellow or blue. Nor, did any of the areas nearby. However, that’s not to say that it hasn’t prompted the occasional tempest in a teapot.

Back in the 1960s, a lady living on the Potomac River not that far from the SM-1 contacted then Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. to say that the plant was responsible for killing her beloved roses. Apparently, inquiries were made, and trying to keep rumors from spreading, the Army sprung for a new rose bed.

However, in spite of its important first, the vast majority of people in Northern Virginia probably never knew it existed. But there it was, a nuclear plant, 17 miles as the crow flies from the White House. It ran from 1954 until 1973. During those 20 years the SM-1 was also the site of the Army’s Nuclear Power school. The Army had high hopes for building small nuclear generators for remote locations and for battlefield uses. These didn’t work out. Though, one of these small nuclear plants powered America’s science station at the South Pole for over a decade, while another, a floating nuclear power plant assembled at Gunston Cove aboard an old Liberty ship, provided power to the Panama Canal Zone. It was an intriguing period in our relationship with nuclear power generation.

The hope was that SM-1, after 50 years or so, would become less radioactive, be declared safe, allowing it to be torn down with little or no fuss. However, in the intervening years, standards for nuclear decommissioning became more stringent, and darned if the old site didn’t lose its radioactive signature as quickly as was originally hoped.

That said, the Corps of Engineers, a good steward of this site for almost half a century, has announced its plans to ship any still radioactive materials to safe long-term storage facilities and then proceed with final demolition. Work is expected to begin next year. At which point, the SM-1 will officially be a thing of the past.

I got to visit the SM-1 shortly after it was decommissioned in the mid-1970s. It was a real treat and the sergeant who gave us the tour seemed to know every detail, probably more than the original designers, about its operations. Also, a factoid many people don’t know, but the design of the plant, originally crafted by what is now the Idaho National Laboratory, a federal research facility, was similar to the one used to power America’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus.

The Army has been out of the nuclear power business for decades. All of the original small reactor sites, save for the SM-1, have been torn down. There isn’t even a hint they were ever there.

In a way, it seems like the Army wants to forget this bit of its history. Maybe because it didn’t fulfill its visionary mission back in the heyday of nuclear power, or maybe it’s because nuclear power generation isn’t popular with the public anymore. And what’s more, possibly because the less said about a working nuclear plant in the heart of Northern Virginia the better. But, that’s a myopic view. It was still a remarkable first step into a new technology. Certainly, that, at the very least warrants some historical accolades.

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.


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