Retired Lt. Gen. Ernest Graves was just a major when he was assigned to the SM-1, the first-of-its-kind nuclear power plant that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was building on Fort Belvoir in the late 1950s. At the time, Major Graves was tasked with overseeing the final stages of construction, then operating and training the staff for the reactor.
The SM-1 was the first nuclear reactor in the country to generate power connected to the commercial grid when it achieved its first criticality in April 1957. Sixty years later, a 93-year-old Graves and his wife, Nancy, visited the facility to discuss its history with professionals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other Department of Defense agencies charged with handling nuclear-related missions for the military, including the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the U.S. Army Nuclear and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Agency.
When SM-1’s reactor was deactivated in 1973, its fuel and control rods were removed and returned to the Department of Energy. Currently, the Corps of Engineers is in the process of planning for the reactor’s decommissioning and dismantlement of the facility. Part of that planning process is gathering as much information as possible about the construction of the facility to plan for its decommissioning and dismantlement. Another key component of the project will be historical mitigation. Basically, the Corps of Engineers will prepare a detailed history of its operation and ultimately its complete dismantlement in order to capture and preserve its history.
“The fact that Lt. Gen. Graves was available and wanted to discuss his early reactor program history -- because we’re getting into the decommissioning of the reactor and we’re going to need to address all those historic aspects -- talking to someone that was actually there at the start of the program is very important,” said Brian Hearty, national program manager at Headquarters U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Army’s Deactivated Nuclear Power Plant Program. “If we could also bring him back 60 years after being at the SM-1 to show him the current state and to discuss our plans, I thought that was a great opportunity.”
Graves oversaw not only the physical completion of the SM-1 facility, but focused mostly upon the operation of the facility and its use to train service members in nuclear power going forward.
“The minute I got on board, I started talking about all the things that are involved in the operation—but the design had been pretty well frozen. The contract had been awarded,” Graves told an interviewer in 1997 which was documented in his Engineer Memoirs, a series of oral histories with significant figures in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “We were going to run a 700-hour performance test, and then the thing was going to be turned over to testing. They wanted to get a lot of hours on these fuel rods, and they wanted to do a lot of measurements.”
That 700-hour test was the first successful test of its kind generating nuclear power in the United States and was a major milestone in the infancy of the nuclear era in the United States.
In addition to the operation of SM-1, the Fort Belvoir site was also the home to the military’s nuclear reactor training school, which Graves spearheaded. This involved coordinating with universities to get service members initial training on the basics of nuclear power before they could be further trained with hands on experience at SM-1. This training school was a tri-service unit, staffed with Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel.
“We did that because the Army was building these package power reactors for use by all three services—Army, Navy, and Air Force,” Graves noted in his oral history. “So we thought we ought to get them into the training program right from the beginning.”
The term package power reactor refers to the concept of developing smaller reactors that could be deployed to support remote military efforts, like in the Arctic, where transport of fuel back and forth could present significant logistical challenges. While the program never took off as imagined, there are still signs of the program, including the Army’s deactivated SM-1A reactor at Fort Greely in Alaska.
Making the reactor training program a joint effort also allowed them to tap into the experience of more than just Soldiers.
“There was another reason - the Army didn’t have anybody that knew anything about steam machinery and the Navy had all kinds of people that knew about steam machinery,” Graves said. “One of our ideas was if we wanted to get people experienced in steam machinery, we got the Navy on board and they would send us people.”
After speaking with Graves and his wife in the control panel room of SM-1, the group then moved to the U.S. Army Nuclear and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Agency headquarters also located on Fort Belvoir. USANCA is home to the Army Reactor Office, which issues the Army Reactor Office Permits for the Army’s one operating and three deactivated nuclear reactors. SM-1 at Fort Belvoir is one of the three deactivated reactors, along with the SM-1A in Alaska and the MH-1A that was aboard the STURGIS barge which is currently in the late stages of decommissioning in Galveston, Texas.
Graves’ association with the Army’s nuclear efforts began when he was assigned to Sandia Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1946 and later Enitowek Atoll in the Pacific Ocean to support nuclear weapons assembly and testing as part of the Manhattan Project. Since then, Graves earned a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951, and subsequently worked on efforts to research the potential for the use of nuclear power in excavation efforts, with an emphasis on potentially using nuclear excavation to assist with the construction of another canal across the Isthmus of Panama, and his association with SM-1’s initial construction and operations. Graves also served in several other capacities with the Army, including the Deputy Chief of Engineers at Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before retiring in 1981.
“As we go into the planning and finding all of the potential repositories of historic documents -- because he was developing the training program -- trying to see if he remembers different agencies he may have worked with that could be potential repositories of documents is important,” Hearty said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, is in charge of executing the planning for the final decommissioning and dismantlement of the SM-1 facility. While the plant was deactivated in 1973 and placed into safe storage, there is still some low-level residual radioactivity contained inside some portions of the facility. The majority of the remaining low-level radioactivity is activated metals and components of the reactor system which is secured within the walls of the facility’s containment vessel.
“While the plant has been deactivated and cleared of most radiation, we will still take every precaution to ensure safety during the final decommissioning and demolition efforts at the facility,” said Brenda Barber, project manager in Baltimore District’s Radiological Center of Expertise. “We’re still in the planning stages for the work at SM-1, but we anticipate being able to start sharing our plans with the public as early as next year. Decommissioning is currently slated to begin in late 2020.”