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Corps of Engineers Officials Visit Fort Greely to Plan for Nuclear Power Plant Decommissioning

Tim Ellis/KUAC

Army Corps of Engineers officials are at Fort Greely this week to begin planning in earnest for the decommissioning and possible dismantling of the old mothballed nuclear power plant on post. The staff from the Corps’ Baltimore office also are talking with officials on post and in Delta Junction about the project, which could take up to a decade to complete.

Decommissioning a nuclear power plant is a complex undertaking under the best of circumstances. Even more so when the plant is located in the same building as the facility that provides heat and backup power to Fort Greely.

“We have to work very closely with the installation, as well as with the privatized utility, to make sure that we’re not interfering with their ability to provide utilities to the installation and the mission,” said Brenda Barber, a project manager with the Corps’ Deactivated Nuclear Power Plant Program. “But we also need to make sure we can achieve our mission.”

Barber says isolating and removing some or all of the old SM-1A components from the area next to the steam-heat facility, which the nuke plant once powered, is one of the thornier problems that’ll have to be overcome during the decommissioning project.

“There will be a lot of complicated decisions that need to be made,” she said, “a lot of collaboration that’s going to be required in trying to separate those two systems, which were originally designed to be together.”

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
An entrance into the building where 10 Doyon Utilities workers maintain a jet fuel-fired boiler that provides steam to the post's district heating system, along with five diesel-fired backup generators. Next door to the facility is the containment tower of the old SM-1A.

The Army hooked-up diesel-fired boilers to the post’s district heating system after it shut down the SM-1A in 1972. A few years ago, the Army privatized the steam-heat plant, and it’s now operated by Doyon Utilities. So, the project will have to include provisions to ensure the safety of the steam-heat plant workers as they keep it operating while work is under way on the SM-1A.

“Our key point is going to be health and safety of both the occupational workers for our staff as well as the staff on the installation and the public as a whole,” said Hans Honerlah, a health physicist with the Corps. Honerlah says an important part of the preliminary planning now under way includes determining how much of the SM-1A can be safely removed without creating a risk to human health from exposure to radiation.

“The goal is for it to be outta here,” he said. “And the goal is to reduce the risk. Now, could I say every atom is going to be gone? No. We’re going to reduce the risk to a level that’s going to be more acceptable.”

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Brenda Barber, left, and Hans Honerlah, a health physicist with the Corps.

Barber says the decommissioning plan that’s now being developed will address those complexities. She expects that plan to be completed in 2021, and she says the Corps hopes to begin soliciting for a project contractor the following year. She estimates the projects will be done in 2027. But she couldn’t estimate how much the project will cost, because there are so many unknowns. But she says a project to decommission a similar nuclear power plant was estimated to cost $34.6 million.

“Unfortunately, due to the challenges and the complexity of that work, that contract price doubled,” she said. “That contract is sitting at $66.4 million right now, and we’re hopeful we can finish for that.”

Barber says the Corps has begun market research on potential contractors capable of doing the main project and others to do subcontract work and other possible projects that may be done separately, such as construction of a man camp to accommodate workers.

“It (the survey) allows us to understand if there are Native Alaskan companies, if there are what we call 8(a) companies, small business,” she said. “We will look for opportunities where smaller businesses could take advantage of finite pieces of the work.”

Barber says the project also will include designating the SM-1A an historic property. She says artifacts that were buried with the reactor in 1973 will be returned to post officials. And she says the federal government will work with the Alaska State Historic Preservation Office to help preserve the story of the SM-1A, Alaska’s first and – so far – only nuclear power plant.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.