Demolition of Fort Greely’s old nuclear plant to begin this year

a power plant
Many of the nuclear-power components of the old SM-1A are encased in concrete in the building that still stands at Fort Greely. (U.S. Army photo)

The Army Corps of Engineers has decided to begin demolition of Fort Greely’s long-mothballed nuclear power plant this summer, a year earlier than planned. That means trucks will begin hauling construction debris off-site this fall.

The SM-1A nuclear power plant was taken off-line back in 1972, and the most radioactive reactor components were removed. More than 50 years later, the building that housed the reactor is scheduled for demolition.

On Tuesday, the head of a Corps of Engineers team in charge of the dismantling and decommissioning project gave a tour of the old power plant for a group of state and federal elected officials’ staff.

Program Manager Brenda Barber provided a project update, including Corps of Engineers decision to delay enclosing the buildingin a big tent to facilitate year-round work.

“We’ve had some challenges with respect to getting that up and running,” she told staff from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office and from state Rep. Ashley Carrick and state Sen. Robert Myers. Rep. Mike Cronk also participated in the tour.

Barber said the original plan was to erect a large weatherproof enclosure on top of shipping containers, but that raised concerns about potential earthquake, snow and wind damage, “and whether or not that weather enclosure would stay stable on top of those conexes during some of the severe weather that occurs here.”

That led the Corps’ team to reconsider how to cover the plant with the enclosure, and the vapor containment or VC structure that towers over facility.

“That means we have to eliminate some of the height concerns, particularly with the vapor containment structure,” she said, “so that the tent can completely encompass the site, the way we intended it to do.”

Barber says the Corps’ team now proposes to partially dismantle the VC structure and remove an old quonset hut next to the plant this summer and set up the enclosure over the site next year. Demolition work would then continue through the winter. Barber says the “re-sequencing” of the work includes moving up asbestos removal to this year.

“So this means that the community on base will see some demolition activity that we originally hadn’t planned to do this year,” she said in an interview after the tour.

The work requires the Corps to monitor the demolition waste for asbestos and low-level radiation sooner than initially planned.

“That will include all of our environmental monitoring and all of our radiological monitoring on very early, in August,” she said.

The materials being removed and taken off-site are classified as low-level radioactive waste. But initially, some of the waste will be inert, she added.

“All the debris that’ll be leaving now will be just metal from the demolition, some wood debris – basically construction debris.”

Barber says the Corps needs approval from the Army Reactor Office before work under the new schedule can begin. If they get the go-ahead, demolition will start this summer with trucks hauling away debris starting in the fall.

“So it’ll be a truck carrying what we call an intermodal container,” she said. “It’s very similar in size and look to a SeaLand container that you’d typically see on a barge.”

An average of two trucks per week will transport containers to Fairbanks, where they’ll be transferred to Alaska Railroad cars for delivery to Anchorage or Whittier. From there, they’ll be barged to Seattle, then railroaded to a hazardous waste facility in Texas.

Barber says the re-sequencing of work should enable the Corps to complete the dismantling and decommissioning of the power plant by the end of 2029, the previously set goal.

She says the agency will hold public meetings on the new schedule in July or August to let the public know about the new plan for dismantling the old SM-1A.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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