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STRICKLER -- Work began this month to assess the level of radioactivity remaining at the heart of a shuttered nuclear reactor test site in rural Washington County.

The findings will determine the waste classification for the site's reactor vessel. But actually removing the vessel will take another $16 million in federal funding, said Mike Johnson, associate vice chancellor for facilities at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, which owns the site.

"I'm very optimistic we'll get those additional funds," said Johnson, adding that an announcement could be made in late spring or early summer.

He said a fully funded cleanup would allow the site to return to "green field" status next year, but a lack of additional funds would cause cleanup to stop at the end of September after a partial demolition.

Ongoing cleanup began about three months ago after a $10.5 million grant announced in September by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor, commonly known as SEFOR, ceased operating in the early 1970s. Built about 20 miles southwest of Fayetteville with funding from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, it was operated by a group of investor-owned electric utilities, according to UA, though the site never produced electricity.

The university took ownership of the site in 1975, but by 1986 it had fallen completely out of use.

UA in November agreed to pay Salt Lake City-based Energy Solutions $9.49 million for some cleanup efforts that will include asbestos removal and a process known as sodium passivation for residual sodium, at one time used to cool the reactor.

The work under contract is considered the second phase of a three-phase cleanup, and will also involve the demolition of a portion of the site.

"Basically, the big rusty dome out there is going to stay until phase three, but everything around it comes out during this phase," Dean Wheeler, the Energy Solutions project manager, told about 20 peoplewho attended a March 16 public meeting in the Strickler community.

Wheeler has said that fuel was removed from the site after it ceased operations. Thus far, cleanup efforts have found radioactive materials in vaults in what is known as the reactor support facility, he said.

"None of it has any significant dose, but it is nonetheless radioactive, and we have to package it and handle it appropriately," Wheeler said.

The reactor vessel, the heart of the site when the 20-megawatt reactor was working, has a diameter of 33 inches, Wheeler said.

The core region is "extremely small in comparison to what we're used to, with 1,000 megawatt plants, where you're talking 15 feet in diameter and 15 feet tall," Wheeler said. "Nonetheless, it's radioactive enough that it could kill you."

As part of the work under contract, Energy Solutions will develop a plan to remove the vessel from the site and design a shipping container for it.

Barbara Hamrick, radiation safety officer at the University of California-Irvine medical center, said in a phone interview she wasn't surprised at cost estimates to remove the reactor vessel.

"A lot of the costs are also regulatory costs," Hamrick said, referring to the process for shipping and disposing of radioactive waste.

Some materials in the reactor vessel would have become contaminated during the time the reactor was operating, Hamrick said.

Hamrick, a health physicist, said standard industrial techniques used for dust control can be used to help ensure safety when dealing with a reactor site that has no fuel.

"It's apples and oranges compared to a reactor with fuel in it," Hamrick said.

Metro on 03/25/2017

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