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UA Begins Reactor Cleanup

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August 19, 2011 by wcobserver

Photo by Casey McCarthy - Preliminary work is underway to prepare the former Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor (SEFOR) plant for deconstruction. The University of Arkansas owns the facility and has applied for a $26 million grant to cover the estimated costs of dismantling the inactive reactor and restoring the ground around it.

By Susannah Swearingen

STRICKLER – The University of Arkansas has begun the process that will eventually restore the site of a defunct nuclear reactor back to greenfield status.

The University’s Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor (SEFOR) facility, located near the Strickler community, has sat unused for more than 20 years.

The 20-megawatt, sodium-cooled nuclear test reactor, which began operations in 1969, was constructed and operated by the Southwest Atomic Energy Associates, a group of 17 investor-owned electric utilities. SEFOR was fueled by plutonium oxide-uranium oxide and was developed in order to obtain data needed to design and operate large-scale commercial sodium-cooled reactors.

When the experimental program ended in 1972, the reactor was shut down and its core removed. The University took ownership of the facility in 1975, using it for instrumental calibration until 1986 and has since served as a caretaker for the site.

Some initial cleanup work is now underway at the site, according to Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Mike Johnson.

Johnson said the University was awarded $1.9 million in financial assistance by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009 to examine the site and determine what would be required to completely clean up the area.

Energy Solutions, an international nuclear services company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, developed a cleanup plan estimated at $26 million.

The University has applied to the Department of Energy for the funding, Johnson said, and in the meantime, will use the remaining $1.9 million to prepare the site for deconstruction.

Johnson said the University, with Energy Solutions doing most of the work, is about halfway through a list of prioritized tasks approved by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the Arkansas Department of Health Radiological Program Office.

One of those tasks is to repower the house on the site using Ozark Electric.

The site’s prior landowner currently lives in the house and acts as a caretaker and security guard.
The house was industrially powered from the site, Johnson said, which is powered by a high voltage SWEPCO (Southwestern Electric Power Company) power line.

“Our goal is to have SWEPCO take out that power line and for Ozark to run a line that would power the house on the property, so we’re setting that up to happen,” he said.

The cleanup also involves identifying and properly disposing of burn pits, deactivating an old leech field system, closing some wells on the property and removing an underground fuel storage tank.
Some of the dilapidated buildings on the site are also being removed, including a warehouse and storage building.

“In doing all of this, we’ve made the site less prone to vandalism and not as attractive a nuisance as it once was,” Johnson said.

The big piece, he said, is making sure any residual sodium and asbestos is removed.

“All of that will expend the $1.9 million, and at that point all we need to finish is $26 million, that would have to come from the DOE and we just don’t know when that might happen,” he said.
To complete the cleanup of the site, Johnson said the control room, the building, the pumps, equipment, and nuclear reactor itself will have to be removed.

Some of that contains radiological contamination, he said, so as much as possible will need to come out in tact, go into a cask and be transported for disposal at an appropriate site.

Johnson said maintaining the site has cost the University roughly $25,000 to $30,000 a year, including a part-time salary for the caretaker and utility bills.

“I’m hoping in the next one to three years, we might have a shot at that [federal] money and we can return the site to greenfield and be out of the caretaking business.”

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