By Jim Swift
SM-1 was once part of plan for the military to generate its own power anywhere. Now it’s a decaying building filled with decaying radiation.
Potomac boaters have seen, at least part of it, for decades as they fished or played on the river near Fort Belvoir: An approximately eight-story-high white smokestack that’s currently home to an osprey. There’s a duck blind nearby for on-base hunting, near a large outfall pipe you can see at low tide and an old pier that conceals an intake pipe.
These images are all that most people will ever see of the SM-1 nuclear reactor that’s sat on Fort Belvoir, unused since 1973, when the Army shut it down and removed its fuel rods and waste. It turned the former “Atoms for Peace” training reactor into a museum a few years later. But the only people who could visit were others in the military or those who could get on base to the highly restricted “300 Area.” The museum closed a decade or so later.
The plant was called SM-1. That was short for Stationary, Medium-size reactor, the first of its kind, built in 1957. (The Army later built a stationary reactor in Fort Greeley, Alaska, and a portable one, PM-2A, to Greenland. Other reactors part of the Army Nuclear Reactor Program were stationed across the world either through the Army or other military branches. ) While the 2 megawatts of power it generated aren’t much by the standards of today—Dominion’s Possum Point power plant 12 miles down the Potomac generates more than 800 times as much electricity from gas and oil—it was the first nuclear reactor in the United States ever connected to the commercial power grid.
SM-1 represented the military’s hope that nuclear power wouldn’t just be used on ships and submarines but could harness the power of the atom to power American military facilities throughout the world where resupplying would be difficult. It was also where the Army trained nuclear operators from across all the armed forces.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the remediation project, hopes to return the ground under SM-1 to usable land within the next few years, perhaps by 2025. But first, it has to remove the most radioactive material, which remains in a sealed containment vessel that was briefly (and in unauthorized fashion) painted to resemble an 8-ball. The Army Corps of Engineers will work with an Alexandria-based contractor to dismantle and dispose of what’s left.