- Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 March 2011 00:00
- Published on Wednesday, 23 March 2011 00:00
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If you want to surprise somebody, even in our area, which has its fair share of engineers and scientists, tell them that there is a retired nuclear plant at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. That usually will get their attention. Located at Fort Belvoir, approximately 18 miles from the White House, and not that far up the Potomac from Fredericksburg and King George, the SM-1 as its called became the first nuclear facility in the country to provide power to a commercial grid. It was in operation for 15 years.
As nuclear plants go, this was a tiny facility and was capable, at maximum operational capability, of generating 2
Kilowatts. Though it did generate electricity, its primary purpose was to train military nuclear technicians and operators. In the late 1970’s I went on a tour of the facility and up until that point had never known it even existed. I had grown up in Northern Virginia, my Dad even worked for the Army, and I had already visited the post several times, but I had never heard about a nuclear plant.
At the time of my visit the SM-1 was already decommissioned. That means the nuclear core had been removed. However, the plant is still there, and it’s unlikely its going to be torn down or removed anytime soon. The normal process for decommissioning, after the fuel is removed, is that the plant is secured, and for lack of a better word, is left to sit until the remaining radioactivity in the plant has reached a reasonable level. 50 years is the commonly offered estimate on how long that takes, but admittedly, no one knows for sure.
The SM-1 was part of a much larger military nuclear program. From the 1950’s and well into 1970’s the military pursued an extensive program to determine just how useful small, portable and mobile reactors might be to the military. Yes, you read that right, I said portable and mobile.
Given the fear factor that’s been generated by the nuclear power plant crisis in Japan, and has dogged the nuclear industry since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the notion of mobile power plants seem particularly unattractive. But this was 50 years ago, the world was a different place, and the services were trying to find ways to provide substantial electrical generating power to remote locations that didn’t require continual refueling. The military built three portable plants that could be assembled wherever they were required. One was used to power a radar facility in Sundance, Wyoming, another an Army base in Greenland and a third, amazingly, powered McMurdo Station at the South Pole. The Greenland and Wyoming plants were in operation for only a couple of years while the South Pole facility ran for ten years.
The mobile program was more limited. The most successful mobile application was a 45 Kilowatt nuclear reactor constructed at Gunston Cove, again, at Fort Belvoir, in 1967. It was built using a World War II Liberty ship. Called the Sturgis it was towed from Fort Belvoir to the Panama Canal Zone, moored in Gatun Lake (which is part of the canal system) and provided electricity for U.S. military activities until 1978. It was decommissioned, again at Fort Belvoir, and now rests with the James River Reserve Fleet.
Another concept, which mercifully didn’t get too far, was to mount a nuclear reactor on a flatbed truck. The Army built a prototype, tested it, including running it for several hundred hours, but considering the risks, the costs, and the technical challenges, decided to drop the program.
There isn’t that much written about the Fort Belvoir SM-1. It’s still there and there are still plenty of alumni of its notoriously intense training program. But other than that, it’s a little snippet of history, a relic, of a more innocent era when it came to our understanding and use of nuclear power.
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