SM-1A nuclear power plant

The SM-1A nuclear power plant at Fort Greely is seen in a historical photo. The plant was shut down in 1972. After decades in storage status, the plant is scheduled to be decommissioned over the next 10 years. (U.S. Army photo)

FAIRBANKS — An Army Corp of Engineers team is planning the formal decommissioning of the only nuclear power plant ever built in Alaska, Fort Greely’s SM-1A plant.

The SM-1A plant provided steam and electricity to the Army post near Delta Junction off and on between 1962 and 1972. It was one of eight experimental projects to test the use of small nuclear power plants at remote installations.

It’s expected to take about 10 years to plan, contract out and complete the SM-1A cleanup, according to a Baltimore-based team from the Army Corps of Engineers that came to Fort Greely for meetings last month.

One particular challenge of decommissioning SM-1A is that the steam plant previously powered by the nuclear reactor is still in use, although today it’s powered by a diesel-fired power plant. 

“As we go through the planning process and ultimately through implementation, safety of the workers is a No. 1 priority,” said Chris Gardner, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, in a telephone interview from Baltimore. “There will be a lot of coordination that will need to take place to minimize any impacts to the continued regular operation of the steam plant.”

Fort Greely was used mostly as a cold weather testing site in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1995, it was ordered shut down as part of a congressionally authorized nationwide base closure and realignment process. It was resurrected several years later, however, and since 2003 has housed most of the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse missile interceptors, the country’s primary defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The SM-1A plant was successful at powering and heating Fort Greely but was eventually deactivated because it was more expensive to operate than a conventional diesel power plant.

When SM-1A shut down in 1972, the Army chose to place the facility into a safe storage status instead of formally decommissioning it. The highly enriched uranium fuel and waste were shipped out of Alaska and radioactive components of the reactor were encased in cement.

The Army chose this temporary method of mothballing the facility out of hope that within a relatively short amount of time significant quantities of radioactive waste would decay to a safer nonradioactive state, according to an Army Corps of Engineers website about the SM-1A at bit.ly/2G7TjVH.

Later studies showed that the volume of radioactive waste wasn’t decreasing as expected and that a more hands-on approach was needed to clean up the plant. The increasing costs of nuclear waste disposal also motivated the Army to begin cleaning up the site.

There’s no estimate yet for the cost of decomissioning SM-1A, but such a project for a similar power plant has a budget of $66.4 million. 

A timeline for the project indicates a request for proposals will be sent out by 2021, with a contract awarded in 2022. The actual cleanup work is expected to take about five years.

The Corp of Engineers is decommissioning other experimental nuclear power plants at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and aboard the Sturgis, a former World War II Liberty Ship in Galveston, Texas, that was made into a floating nuclear plant and used in Panama in the 1960s and 1970s.

See the Army Corps of Engineers website for more about the Fort Greely nuclear power plant.

Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors