A $10.5 million U.S. Department of Energy grant will pay for partial cleanup of a nuclear reactor test site about 20 miles southwest of Fayetteville.
The 20-megawatt reactor ceased operating in 1972, with the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville taking ownership of the site in 1975 to use as a research tool for graduate students.
But by 1986 it had fallen completely out of use. Going back several years now, a lack of funding has been cited by UA and state officials as an obstacle to cleanup efforts.
“This is a huge milestone,” said Mike Johnson, UA’s associate vice chancellor for facilities.
The U.S. Department of Energy awarded the grant Sept. 27.
Work will likely start in December or January, Johnson said. The scope of the project includes cleanup of basement vaults holding contaminated rainwater, according to UA’s grant application.
But more money — Johnson estimated $16 million — is needed to remove the actual reactor vessel and complete remediation of the site. In its grant application, UA listed three project phases totaling $28 million to complete site decommissioning and dismantling.
“I think we will get additional money in ’17. I just don’t know if it will be everything we need to finish,” Johnson said.
A fully funded cleanup effort could be finished by the end of 2018, Johnson said, with the site returned to “greenfield.”
The Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor, commonly known as SEFOR, was built in 1968 with funding from the U.S.
Atomic Energy Commission, according to UA. It ran for three years, from 1969 to 1972, operated by a group of investor-owned electric utilities.
Fuel and the sodium coolant were removed after it was shut down, but UA found no use for the site after the mid-1980s. Every year, thousands have been spent on basic maintenance and safety measures for the site, UA officials have said.
In 1997, UA’s associate vice chancellor of research, Collis Geren, told the Democrat-Gazette that the site was “a constant, irritating drain.”
Johnson praised efforts by elected officials in pushing for funding.
UA was awarded a $1.9 million federal grant in 2009 for a study on dismantling the reactor. Two members of Congress described the latest grant as a key step toward full remediation of the site.
“I am pleased that the prolonged effort to decommission and dismantle SEFOR will soon be completed after years of cooperation between the University, our delegation, and DOE culminating with this grant,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., in a statement. His district includes the site.
“I look forward to seeing this environmental concern in Northwest Arkansas completely resolved,” Womack said.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, in a statement released by UA, said the funding “will be instrumental in helping to move this project toward completion.” Boozman previously served as a U. S. representative for the district that includes the site.
“I advocated for federal funding for the cleanup through the Senate Appropriations Committee and have emphasized the importance of this project,” Boozman said. “This development brings us one step closer to fully decommissioning SEFOR in a safe and responsible manner.”
A Department of Energy spokesman called it “premature to know how much work will be completed with the funding.”
Ann Harbison, a Washington County justice of the peace, called the grant a long time coming. She sponsored a county resolution in 2013 calling for federal funding to clean up the reactor.
“It’s an eyesore out there to the community,” Harbison said. “Not only is it an eyesore, it’s a health issue.”
Two officials with the Arkansas Department of Health said risks have been mitigated, downplaying the current danger. Sodium, used to cool the reactor, is a chemical that poses a threat of explosion.
However, at the test site, “there is nothing there that will explode,” said Jared Thompson, manager of the department’s radioactive materials program. He said tests done in 2010 showed “very small amounts” of sodium in the facility’s piping.
As far as radioactive materials, Thompson said, “that’s one of those things that will have to be assessed.”
He said the health department has worked closely with the university on remediation efforts since 2010, reviewing work plans. Johnson said the university has spent roughly $250,000 over the past five years or so on basic maintenance projects at the site.
“They’ve not really removed any radioactive material yet,” Thompson said.
As agreed, “nothing was to leave unless it was monitored,” Thompson said, explaining that scans done on materials to check for radioactivity will ensure that materials are disposed of properly.
Salt Lake City-based Energy Solutions, a company selected by UA after a bidding process around the time of the 2009 grant award, will bring radiological workers to oversee the cleanup, Johnson said.
The grant application includes 2010 estimates stating that approximately 19,875 cubic feet of radioactive waste are expected to be taken to the company’s Utah waste disposal facility. But most of the waste is expected to be “low-level,” apart from the reactor vessel, neutron reflectors and possibly fission chambers, which may require disposal involving the U.S. Department of Energy, the document states.
Thompson said health department workers will be on site, with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality also involved.
After sponsoring the 2013 resolution, Harbison said she lost hope that cleanup would happen anytime soon.
“I really thought it was never going to get done,” Harbison said. Now, she said she’s encouraged.