Energy & Environment

Army Nuclear Reactor Barge Headed For Dismantling In Galveston

Old Army cargo ship with nuclear reactor dismantled in Galveston

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Aboard the Sturgis: US Army Corp of Engineers project managers Brenda Barber (flag safety hat) and Hans Honerlah (yellow jacket)

Sometime this winter, an historic sea vessel will float into Galveston. But you won’t be able to take a tour of it. In fact, you probably won’t be allowed to get close to it. Because the big barge is radioactive.

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TA 1968 photo of the Sturgis in the Panama Canal where it provided electricity to operate the locks.

A half century ago, the U.S. Army came up with what sounded like a great idea: put a small, nuclear power plant on board an old military cargo ship. The Army called it the Sturgis after a three-star general.

“The Sturgis was fairly highly classified,” said Will Davis who used to operate nuclear reactors in the Navy and now has a blog on atomic power. He said the Sturgis had one mission: it was sent to the Panama Canal to generate electricity to operate the locks. But after about 7 years, it was no longer needed and was mothballed.

“Sturgis has been de-fueled since 1977. The nuclear fuel was taken out,” said Davis.

So for decades, under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Sturgis was moored at a military harbor in Virginia, its nuclear fuel removed but with its reactor and other parts still on-board and emitting low levels of radiation. That was the Army Corps’ idea: let it sit for years so the radioactive parts would decay and become less radioactive. Then, it’d be safer to tear it apart for scrap. But to do that would mean moving it.

“We will put the vessel under tow in winter of this year. And it’ll be towed 1,700 miles down to Galveston,” said Brenda Barber, an Army Corps manager of the Sturgis Project.

The Sturgis will be docked at a shipyard on Galveston Island at a pier at the 37th street entrance to the Port of Galveston. The pier is less than a mile from where the historic sailing ship Elissa is moored and it’s just a quarter mile from the A&M Galveston campus. If you stood there, would you be exposed to radiation coming from this barge?

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The historic sailing ship Elissa will be less than a mile from where the Sturgis will be dismantled in the shipyard seen in the distance.

“No, no,” said Hans Honerlah, also a project manager with the Army Corps. “When we’re in there, in every other part of the vessel except initially where that reactor may be, the radiation levels are less than background.”

In other words, the Army Corps contends there won’t be any more radiation outside the vessel than is naturally-occurring. Honerlah said what will be of concern are the workers doing the dismantling. He says rules will be in place to keep them as far away from the radioactivity as possible and to “minimize the amount of time any worker is around the radioactivity.”

The dismantling will take over a year. What if a hurricane hits while they’re doing the work?

“She will be made water-tight and she will ride out the storm in the port,” Brenda Barber told News 88.7. “This is consistent with what the shipyard has done in the past with other vessels. The ships have weathered the storms and they’ve returned to work.”

Radioactive parts removed from the Sturgis will be sent off to government-approved disposal sites while the rest of the vessel will towed possibly to South Texas and sold for scrap, according to the Army Corps.

The Corps has hired a contractor to do the work, paying $35 million to a Woodlands-based company, CB & I. The company has years of experience in the nuclear power field.

A check of enforcement actions by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission shows one case last year in which CB&I agreed to improve safety awareness. This followed the firing of a quality assurance supervisor who’d worked for a nuclear services company CB& I had acquired and who had tried to raise safety concerns according to the commission.

The case was unrelated to the Sturgis project and the Army Corps said CB& I was carefully chosen and is well-qualified.

What do Galveston officials think about the Sturgis project? One council member who responded to emailed questions from News 88.7, Ralph McMorris, said he was definitely concerned and wanted to know more about what precautions would be taken when they dismantled the army’s only floating nuclear power plant. To answer those questions from the community, the Army Corps of Engineers project managers will hold a briefing Tuesday starting at 6pm at the Galveston Convention Center.

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Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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