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Nuclear era ending at Fort Belvoir

May 5, 2011

By Julia Ledoux, Special contributor

FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- Former Army Reactor Program graduates Malcolm McLeod and Emery Chase recently revisited Fort Belvoir's long-deactivated nuclear power plant, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is decommissioning.

"In addition to planning and leading the decommissioning effort, the United States Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with maintaining the plant, its security and safety and is actively engaged in maintaining both the facility and the health and safety of the public, since its deactivation," said McLeod, who now works with the USACE and received his nuclear power plant operator training at Belvoir.

The 2-megawatt plant - designated as SM-1 - went online in 1957 and was deactivated in 1977. When the plant was deactivated, both its fuel and control rods were removed, said McLeod, who added that any remaining radiation at the facility is essentially embedded, meaning the facility is not like an active nuclear plant and presents no hazards to the public's health and safety.

The plant provided the installation's electrical power and served as the training site for the Army Nuclear Power Program, which operated eight plants around the world.

"It's a profession. The people that went into this who are in it today in the commercial world do a superb job," said Chase, a former nuclear power plant operator for the Army who trained at Belvoir in 1969.

It was also the first nuclear power station to be connected to an electrical grid, said Phil Shubert, Belvoir's Army Reactor Program Manager.

"It was not a major source of power, because it was mainly supplying the fort, but it did tie on to the grid," said Shubert, a licensed senior reactor operator who trained with the Tennessee Valley Authority. "Fort Belvoir's reactor's main purpose was to train operators in how to operate a plant, in addition to providing power for the base."

An agreement between the then Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense led to the program's creation and the plants' construction.

"They were looking at nuclear, in addition to weapons, as a source of power," explained Shubert.
There is no nuclear fuel at the plant, continued Shubert, who said the decommissioning process is arduous.

"You have to make sure there are no hazards that are present," he explained. "You have to survey for a number of things. In the time frame it was built, there will be some issues, like asbestos."

The plant is at the southeast boundary of the post and overlooks Gunston Cove. Migrating ospreys love the area, Shubert said, and there is an osprey nest at the top of its stack.
"It's a beautiful spot," he added.

Chase had a master's degree and was a captain in the Army when he was accepted into the program, which included academic and the hands-on operation of the plant.

"I pulled shifts," he said. "That was true of both officers and enlisted (personnel)."

The Fort Belvoir plant operated 24/7 and had a staff of 55.

"It was never left by itself," Chase said. "You did all your own maintenance."

Shubert said the operators also had to maintain their qualifications and were nearly always training.

"We produced a cadre of operators and engineers that safely operated these plants for decades," he added.

Chase was stationed in Panama after he graduated from the program. While there, he initially worked in a conventional power plant before becoming executive officer aboard the MH-1 Sturgis, which pulled its first critical - a condition operators use to describe the status of the nuclear fission process, at Belvoir. The Sturgis was towed to Panama and moored at Lake Gatun, where it provided 10-megawatts of electrical power.

Shubert said the decommissioning of the SM-1 could take some time, but, when the effort is completed, it should free up some additional space for the installation.

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