Army, contractor begin planning to dismantle deactivated Fort Greely nuclear power plant

Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers talk with prospective contractors and others before going in for a tour of the Fort Greely nuclear power plant, known as the SM-1A. The facility, which went online in 1962, is Alaska’s first and only nuclear power plant. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Nappi/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The Army Corps of Engineers is moving ahead on a project to decommission the mothballed nuclear-power plant at Fort Greely. A team from the agency has just wrapped-up a three-week visit to the fort and awarded a contract to develop plans on how it’ll dismantle the Cold War-era relic over the next 10 years.

When Army officials shut down the old power plant’s nuclear reactor back in the early 1970s, they replaced it with a diesel-fired boiler and connected it to the system that provides steam heat and electricity to Fort Greely. Now, in order to dismantle and remove the remaining nuclear components, the project contractor will have to first disconnect the two utility systems – carefully, so as to not interrupt the flow of heat and power to the post.

“So we are engineering the separation of those two ends of the facilities, so that we can implement our work without interfering with the utilities to Fort Greely,” said Project Manager Brenda Barber. She says that’s why the Corps of Engineers awarded a $1.5 million contract last month to Texas-based company that will develop a plan on how to remove the nuclear components, located in the northern half of the building, from the diesel-fired system that’s in the southern end of the building.

“So there are a lot of complexities,” Barber said, “because there are a lot of intermingled and co-mingled utilities between the two ends of the facility that we’re going to have to slowly take apart piece by piece and make sure that we don’t interfere with the utilities being provided to the installation.”

Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District Commander Col. John Litz, left, and Baltimore District Project Manager Brenda Barber exchange ideas on dismantling and decommissioning Greely’s nuclear power plant. Corps officials spent the past three weeks at Greely preparing to ramp-up work on the project. (Photo by Rebecca Nappi/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Barber says those components include the electrical switch gear, which controls the facility’s functions.

She says she and members of her team from the Corps’ Baltimore office and the Alaska District office, spent most of last week giving tours of the facility to representatives of firms that may bid on a contract to remove the nuclear side of the building.

“We are hosting these initial contractor visits in order to allow potential interested contractors to come to the site … so that they can start to understand how they would approach the work, what kind of team they would put together,” Barber said.

Barber says the engineering work called for in the initial contract awarded last month should be done by September 2020. She says the Corps hopes to award the next contract for removal of the facility’s nuclear components within the next federal fiscal year. And she says the work should be completed about 10 years from now.

Litz takes a look at a massive hatch over the containment vessel leading to the SM-1A during a visit to the site in April. The entrance has been sealed shut since the nuclear reactor was shut down in 1972. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

“Our team is really focusing on getting the project geared-up and pushing ahead to the decommissioning phase,” she said in an interview Monday. “There’s a lot of work here to be done in order to get to that phase of the work, because of the complexities of the site. So we are putting a lot of extra effort into this location.”

Although several highly radioactive components remain entombed in concrete at the site, Barber emphasized that they presents no health hazard to the employees of Doyon Utilities — the contractor that operates the power plant — nor to the contractor workers that will be brought in for the dismantling project. She says the Corps and its contractors will focus on safety throughout the project.

Corps officials don’t want to disclose their estimated cost of the cleanup project before the agency begins to solicit offers. A Corps official last year pointed out that the cost of decommissioning a similar facility came to about $67 million.

Barber says that project, along with one at Fort Belvoir, Va., and the one at Fort Greely, will eliminate the last of the Army’s old decommissioned nuclear power plants.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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