The Fort Greely SM-1A nuclear reactor, one of the first in the country, was put in service at Fort Greely as part of an Army program to generate power and provide heat at remote installations. Activated on March 13, 1962, the reactor was shut down in 1972. It was the first field installation of a reactor by the Army.
Currently classified by the Army as “in safe storage” by the Corps of Engineers, a contract was awarded in December of 2017 to begin planning for the final decommissioning of the reactor.
Brenda Barber with the Army Corps of Engineers says the contract for planning the final removal and decommissioning of the reactor was awarded to Aecom Tidewater Joint Venture. Aecom is currently working on projects involving other reactors that are in the same status with the Department of the Army.
Barber made a presentation to the Fort Greely Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) last week detailing the project. The RAB was created when Fort Greely was placed on the Base Realignment and Closure List (BRAC) in 1995. Even though the base was saved from closure with the placement of the missile defense program at the post, once the RAB was put in place, it continues its process of reviewing the restoration of issues present on the post prior to when the BRAC process began.
Over the years the RAB has monitored several projects at Fort Greely and also received a report at the April 25 meeting on the Donnelly Training Area Rifle Range. The rifle range was surveyed and found to have no hazards present. Fort Greely officials said they expect no additional work to be done in that area, and the State Department of Environmental Conservation is working to confirm that no work will be needed.
During the past year, information has been updated on several different BRAC projects, including the South Tank Farm, the Groundwater Monitoring Report, and no further action decision documents on five sites.
The SM-1A reactor removal will be a multiyear project, with actual removal beginning sometime around 2022 and taking about five years to complete.
Mike Murphy, a local resident who once worked at Fort Greely with the project, asked why the Army was removing the reactor after it had been decommissioned and placed in safe storage.
Hans Honerlah, representing the Corps, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rules require reactors to be removed within 60 years of being shut down.
Murphy inquired as to why the Army – which is not subject to NRC rules – would follow the NRC procedures.
Honerlah explained that the Army voluntarily follows NRC rules so that it doesn’t have to develop its own set of rules for dealing with nuclear facilities.
The area around the SM-1A reactor has been the subject of numerous articles and references to possible radiation in and around Fort Greely. Alaska Community Action on Toxics released a report by Nuclear Weapons Free America in 2000 outlining numerous concerns about radiation and cancer in the community thought to be caused by the reactor.
The group also stated it believes the purpose of the reactor was to produce small scale nuclear weapons.
“The U.S. Army is disguising the true mission of the nuclear reactor at Fort Greely, Alaska. Rather than a plant to provide heating and electricity to the base, the Fort Greely reactor was covertly designed and operated as a small pilot plant to produce special nuclear materials suitable for use in battlefield weapons,” states the abstract of the report.
The report goes on to list six sources of probable exposure from the plant: “Liquid radioactive wastes released into the ground water and used for drinking water from dug wells in Clearwater; Radioactive steam used in the laundry and to heat the military base; Control rod accident and sub sequent cleanup process; Fallout near reactor from accident that caused permanent closing; Improper methods of disposal of solid radioactive wastes; Radiation remaining in containment structure of decommissioned reactor.”
In 2012, the Army conducted an all hazard assessment around the site and determined that any hazard from the plant was limited to the plant site. Workers currently work adjacent to the decommissioned reactor in the Fort Greely Power Plant, operated by Doyon Utilities. The plant provides heat and backup electricity to the post.
The Corps says that the 2012 assessment included sampling throughout and adjacent to the reactor building, and out toward the discharge area. “We feel pretty confident that the issue we have to deal with is what’s inside the fence and containment building,” said a Corps spokesperson.
The Fort Greely RAB will meet in early 2019 to receive an update on the Fort Greely issues.