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Living With Nuclear Power

Fort Belvoir's history still evident today along the Potomac.

A fact not too many people in Mount Vernon may know is that there is a nuclear power plant right in their own back yard. The plant, still intact but decommissioned, is a scant four miles down the Potomac from George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate. While this summer's power blackout in the Northeast introduced the “grid” to many area residents, few, if any, know that Fort Belvoir's plant pumped electricity into that grid as recently as 20 years ago.

"It is completely safe," said Brendan Burns, the U.S. Army's Reactor Program manager. Burns said that operators removed the nuclear fuel and control rods in 1974 and transferred them to the U.S. Department of Energy. The Army's Corps of Engineers, which ran the plant after its construction in 1957, placed all other contaminated materials inside the vapor containment vessel, then sealed it.

"We constantly monitor the site for radiation," Burns said. "It is in what we call a 'safe-store' condition."

At the time of the reactor's decommissioning, the Corps viewed this approach to be the safest and most cost-efficient means to maintain the reactor until the radiation decays to the point when the entire plant can be disassembled — about 50 years from now.

IN THE EARLY 1950s, about the same time that the U.S. Navy launched USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, the Army began investigating using nuclear reactors to generate electricity at remote installations. Convinced then that nuclear power was a cheaper alternative to conventional diesel-powered generators in certain circumstances, the Army gained permission to construct three reactors. The Corps built their first at Fort Belvoir, using it to not only generate power but also train operators for all three plants.

The second, in Fort Greely, Alaska, operated from 1962-73 and served to test operations in severe weather and challenging geographic circumstances. The third was a mobile reactor that the Corps installed aboard a ship. Sturgis, a converted World War II Liberty ship, was initially based at Fort Belvoir, but the Corps later towed it to Panama, where it provided power to Panama Canal operations from 1968-76. The deactivated Sturgis is part of the mothballed fleet moored in the James River at Fort Eustis, Va.

THE PLANT AT Fort Belvoir is a pressurized water reactor designated SM-1, with all nuclear components located in the containment vessel. A dome made of steel and concrete, the vessel was meant to contain the pressure created by an untoward incident, including a disintegration of the core and the vaporization of all of the water in the circulation systems. The reactor produced a net output of 1,700 kilowatts of electrical power, about the needs of a small community.

During the day, the reactor helped serve the power needs of the Fort Belvoir, but at night, when electricity demands lessened, the plant sent excess power into the grid serving communities throughout the Northeast states.

The school for training operators was collocated with the reactor and the curriculum was a year-long session on theory, technology and operations. One of the students who attended the school was a newly commissioned Army officer named Larry Foulke, who is now the president of the American Nuclear Society.

"Training on the SM-1 with a grizzled, experienced Army staff was a great eye-opener for this young Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from M.I.T. The Army staff was very patient with the young lieutenant, and we soon developed the mutual respect that comes from combined knowledge."

Lt. Col. James Kamermann, a health physicist and a reservist now on active duty at Fort Belvoir, was a student in the training course in 1974. "The nuclear power program was winding down at that time, and I was in one of the last classes," Kamermann said. "The concept proved too expensive to operate and maintain." After shutting down the reactor, the Army used the plant's non-nuclear systems to train conventional power plant operators through the 1980s.

ACCORDING TO Gus Person, Fort Belvoir's historian, the Corps created a visitor's center and nuclear power museum inside the power plant after its decommissioning. "They conducted tours of the facility, at least that part outside of the containment vessel, and set up displays that depicted the reactor's operation."

Although uncertain about when tours ceased, Person thought that the public enjoyed access into the 1980s.