The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has decided to remove solid waste from the mothballed SM-1A nuclear power plant in Fort Greely, Alaska initially to disposal facilities in-state. However, because Alaska ha no facility for handling radioactive and hazardous materials, it will then be packed up and taken out of state. “Waste that cannot be disposed of in the state of Alaska will be shipped to the Lower 48 states for disposal, via a combination of truck transport, train transport and vessels,” explained Project Manager Brenda Barber on 9 March.
She said waste will be trucked from the site to the Alaska Railroad yard in Fairbanks, where it will be loaded onto railcars. “It’ll be transported by train to either the Port of Whittier, or the Port of Alaska, where it’ll be loaded onto vessels,” she added. “From there, it’ll be shipped to the Port of Seattle or (other) West Coast port. Once it arrives, it will go by rail or truck to the disposal facility.”
Barber said plans call for two truckloads of radioactive and hazardous materials to leave Fort Greely every week, beginning late next year or in 2023. The Corps plans to minimise traffic any congestion the trucks may cause in communities along the route, especially during rush hour. “We’ll be scheduling all of the decommissioning-related traffic for off-peak hours,” she said. All materials extracted from the site will be packaged and transported according to federal and state regulations, to maintain safety for the workers and the public. “Safety is the Number 1 priority for the Corps of Engineers,” she said. “There will be minimal risk to the public throughout the duration of the SM-1 project.”
According to Corps officials, the most highly radioactive materials and components were removed soon after the SM-1A was shut down in 1972. Some of the SM-1A’s radioactive components that were not removed are sealed and entombed in a cylindrically shaped vapour containment tower.
The Army Corps of Engineers has issued a document outlining plans to decommission and dismantle the SM-1A which was closed after 10 years of operation and partially dismantled and mothballed. The Corps of Engineers has issued a draft environmental assessment examining the impacts of dismantling the facility. “We are targeting a mobilisation to the site in the April of 2023 timeframe, with a target completion date of 2028,” Barber said.
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 MWt for steam heat and 1.8 MWe. Brian Hearty, the Corps of Engineers’ Deactivated Nuclear Power Plant Programme manager, said in a 2018 interview that all of the fuel in the reactor core was removed. “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.”
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 vapour containment building there, and then they were grouted and concreted in place,” he said.
This reduced the amount of radiation emitted by those components to a level that’s considered safe and the site has been continuously monitored ever since, Hearty noted. The safeguards in place protect workers at the heat and power plant that now runs on diesel-fired boilers. Barber said that, before the radioactive components can be removed, the contractor that is hired for the project must disconnect the steam-heat system from the SM-1A. “This is a very large and unique project, ” she said. “We want comments from the public.” Two public consultation meetings have been held so far.
According to the draft Environmental Assessment, “In its current condition, SM-1A does not support the Army’s mission in Alaska or at Fort Greely. The purpose of the Proposed Action is to: 1) safely remove, transport, and dispose of all materials and equipment (M&E), structures, and residual contamination associated with SM-1A; 2) release the SM-1A site for unrestricted use in accordance with US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) radiological dose criteria…; and 3) terminate the US Army-issued SM-1A decommissioning permit.” The need for the Proposed Action is to complete the decommissioning of SM-1A within 60 years (by 2032) of permanent cessation of operations in accordance with NRC regulations.
The draft concludes that, with implementation of best management practices and minimisation measures, “adverse impacts would not meet the conditions requiring preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). “The Proposed Action would have no significant adverse impacts on the natural or human environment; therefore, it is not an action normally requiring preparation of an EIS.”
SM-1A was built between 1958 and 1962, and operated from 1962 to 1972. Its primary mission was to supply electrical power and heating steam for on-post buildings and facilities at Fort Greely. SM-1A was also used as an in-service test facility to understand how the equipment would function in an arctic environment. SM-1A has been maintained in a SAFSTOR condition since its deactivation. “The Proposed Action would enable USACE to meet Army mission objectives to decommission SM-1A, terminate the US Army SM1A decommissioning permit, and release the underlying land for unrestricted use.”