david kerr H&S

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Building a nuclear reactor is a remarkable feat of science and engineering. Building the first one to ever feed electricity into a commercial power grid is a groundbreaking achievement.   

That’s what happened at Fort Belvoir’s SM-1 nuclear power plant in 1957.  The plant was in operation for 16 years. It was shut down in 1973 and its nuclear core was removed.  

However, the path to eventually demolishing the facility is a long one.

First of all, lets back up a little bit.  What got the Army interested in nuclear power?  Isn’t that for ships and submarines? The answer is, not necessarily.  

Nuclear power, particularly in its early days, looked like an ideal source of energy to power facilities in remote locations. There was even a notion of building a portable nuclear power plant that would be pulled by truck. Imagine that on I-95 during rush hour.

But, fortunately, the Army, working with the Atomic Energy Commission, kept its focus on larger compact “package” nuclear reactors.  The SM-1 at Fort Belvoir was a test site and a training facility.

I went on a tour of it in the 1970s.  While most of us think of nuclear plants as massive, the SM-1 was cozy.  We parked in the parking lot, walked a couple of hundred feet and there we were, near where the core used to be.  

The Army built another working nuclear plant at Fort Greely in Alaska that at the time was serving as an interceptor missile launch site. They also built one on a Liberty Ship called the U.S.S. Sturgis.  That plant, built at Fort Belvoir, in Gunston Cove, was used as a floating power source for facilities in the Panama Canal Zone.

There was also one at the South Pole’s McMurdo Station.  It ran for almost 12 years. Alas, all of these sites ran up against two problems.  First, they turned out to be more expensive to operate than expected. Secondly, by the early 1970s anxiety was growing over nuclear power.  Was it such a good idea to have small nuclear plants? It didn’t sound safe.

These concerns led to the closure of the McMurdo facility in 1972, the shutdown of the SM-1 and the Fort Greely facilities in 1973 and the shipborne Sturgis plant was closed in 1976.

The problem with old nuclear power plants is what do you do with them when they are shut down?  The first thing that happens is that the core gets shipped off to a special decommissioning site.  However, the job of decontamination and demolition of the old plant is by no means done. Many of the metals, concrete and equipment in the facility remain radioactive.  The hope was that after 50 years or so it would become safe enough to handle.

That, however, hasn’t been happening fast enough, and the Army has decided it needs a more aggressive decontamination strategy.  That’s what the Army is doing at Fort Belvoir and in Alaska.

As for the South Pole nuclear facility, unlike its counterparts in the U.S., that was demolished almost immediately.  Roughly 12,000 pounds of radioactive material were shipped to a secure nuclear waste site in the United States.

Just how safe this procedure was, given the site’s remoteness and the absence of guidelines for handling radioactive debris at the time, remains an open question.

As for the SM-1, when the core was removed, Army engineers decontaminated the underground liquid radioactive waste tanks and filled them with concrete.  They then sealed the reactor dome, removed the underground piping, tore down some uncontaminated structures and began a decades-long effort to monitor and continually assess the site.  

They did the same at Fort Greely.  

Now, the facilities are getting old and since they’re still radioactive, the Army wants to go ahead and demolish these facilities. But this is not your average construction contract or your average hazardous waste management project. These are nuclear facilities; everything about them has special requirements.  

So, with that in mind, the Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of developing a contract.  They want the demolition process to be safe, and they want these old sites to be clean enough for alternative uses.  This means they have a lot of scientific and environmental work to do in establishing the scope of their contracting requirements.  This will take a while and cleanup work probably won’t begin until 2020 or even later.

In the 1950s the Army nuclear program built the SM-1 for $2.09 Million. The clean-up for a similar sized facility at Fort Greely is estimated at about $62 Million.  That’s expensive.

The SM-1 and its sister facilities were a part of our country’s early commitment to nuclear power and all that it might accomplish.  Our nuclear industry learned a lot from their operations. However, while they were relatively easy to build, it’s turned out to be a lot more difficult to get rid of them than anyone ever would have imagined in the 1950s.


David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.

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