Nearly 50 years after it was shut down, Army releases plan to get rid of Alaska’s first and only nuclear power plant

A grey silo next to a tan building
Some of the SM-1A’s radioactive components that were not removed are sealed and entombed in the cylindrically shaped vapor containment tower at left. (KUAC)

The Army Corps of Engineers has issued a document outlining plans to decommission and dismantle Alaska’s first and only nuclear power plant — the old SM-1A at Fort Greely. The Corps has scheduled two meetings for next week to talk about the draft environmental assessment, and is encouraging the public to comment on it.

Army officials shut down the SM-1A in 1972 after 10 years of operation, and partially dismantling and mothballing the facility until they could figure out what to do with it. The Corps of Engineers now proposes to remove what’s left of the old power plant in a draft environmental assessment released last week that the agency will share with the public on Tuesday in Fairbanks and Thursday in Delta Junction.

“We wanted to make sure that we were hosting the meetings in Fairbanks and in Delta, in order to try to encourage more public participation,” said project manager Brenda Barber.

The draft environmental assessment examines the impacts of dismantling the facility, a complex project that will take years to complete, according to Barber, who heads up a team from the Corps’ Baltimore office that’s been studying whether and how to dismantle and remove the remainder of the nuclear power plant.

“We are targeting a mobilization to the site in the April of 2023 timeframe, with a target completion date of 2028,” she said in an interview last week.

Before the SM-1A can be dismantled and removed, components of Fort Greely’s operational steam-heat system must be disconnected from the old facility at the north end of Building 606 and relocated to the south end. Inset in upper right shows locations of wells 11 and 12, from which water was drawn to cool the reactor, and well 13, where treated reactor cooling water was dumped. All three wells are now deactivated. (Army Corps of Engineers)

The SM-1A was a field prototype of a medium-sized nuclear reactor the Army was developing during the Cold War for use at remote military installations. It generated 20 megawatts of thermal energy for steam heat and 1.8 megawatts of electricity. Some components were removed from the plant after it was shut down, as explained by Brian Hearty, the Corps of Engineers’ Deactivated Nuclear Power Plant Program manager, in a 2018 interview.

“All of the fuel in the reactor core was removed,” Hearty said. “Any of the highly activated control and absorber rods were also removed. All of the solid waste around the reactor was packaged up and shipped down to waste-disposal facilities in the Lower 48.”

Hearty said some of the plant’s primary system components, including the reactor and its pressure vessel and coolant pumps, were entombed inside the facility.

“Those were either kept in place, or they were cut off and laid down in the bottom of the tall vapor containment building there, and then they were grouted and concreted in place,” he said.

Hearty said those procedures reduced the amount of radiation emitted by those components to a level that’s considered safe. And he said the site has been continuously monitored ever since.

Those safeguards protect the workers at the heat and power plant that now runs on diesel-fired boilers. Barber said before the radioactive components can be removed, the contractor that’ll eventually be hired for the project must disconnect the steam-heat system from the SM-1A.

“This is a very large and unique project, and so we really do want that participation,” she said. “We want comments from the public.”

Barber said people may attend next week’s meetings in-person, at the Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks or Delta Junction Community Center. Or they can find out how to participate online by going to Fort Greely’s Facebook page.