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Experimental 1960s Ozarks Nuclear Energy Reactor To Be Razed

University of Arkansas

The historic Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor, referred to as SEFOR, located 20 miles southwest of Fayetteville, Arkansas will finally be dismantled, and some nearby residents are wondering what might leak out.

A project of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission along with a consortium of 17 electric utilities, SEFOR was only in operation from 1969 to 1972. The nuclear fission facility located in the unincorporated community of Strickler was powered with a mix of uranium oxide and plutonium oxide, a spent nuclear fuel by-product. Conventional cold water nuclear power reactors fueled by enriched uranium boil water to produce steam-generated electrical energy. SEFOR was a next-generation nuclear power plant designed to conserve scant reserves of uranium and at the same time produce weapons-grade plutonium. 

And it worked.

After SEFOR’s radioactive fuel and coolant were removed in 1974, the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville acquired the facility for radiological instrument calibration and other research purposes, but it quit in 1986.

The college continues to monitor the shuttered 640-acre site.

Generations of Strickler residents have patiently reckoned with SEFOR in their backyard, so on the night of December 16th about 80 turned out at the local fire station to hear what is to come of their forsaken nuclear neighbor. 

EnergySolutions, a global nuclear waste management company based in Salt Lake City, has been contracted to help with the dismantling, and representatives led the townhall at the fire station.

Pots of hot percolating coffee and platters of home-made Christmas cookies sat mostly untouched as residents took in a multimedia presentation of the process of razing a nuclear power plant.

Among the first to arrive was 77-year-old Floyd Cantrell, who's lived near SEFOR all his life.

Credit Jacqueline Froelich
SEFOR public meeting at Strickler Fire Station.

“It hasn’t affected the community at all,” Cantrell said. “It’s been something that people talk about. Conversation more than anything."

Hesitating a moment, he added, "but there's probably a lot of secrets people don’t know about.”

The forested radioactive site which served as a covert Cold War nuclear fission experiment remains fenced and posted with warning signs.

EnergySolutions Project Director Dean Wheeler assured residents this his firm will be fully transparent as the two-phase decontamination and demolition project moves forward.

“We will clear everything out from the reactor building, leaving the reactor intact,” Wheeler says, describing phase two, which includes removing residual radioactive coolant, asbestos, PCBs and mercury. Phase two will cost $10.5 million, money coming in from a U.S. Department of Energy grant. It will begin January 3rd.

In 2009, EnergySolutions was one of four contractors chosen to survey the site and draw up a decontamination plan under phase one, which cost $1.9 million dollars.

Credit EnergySolutions
EnergySolutions logo

Phase two will take nine months,  Wheeler says, as will phase three — the riskiest, most expensive of the three-part mitigation. 

“Demolishing the pressurized reactor building, bioshield, containment building and all hardware," he says, "reducing the site to 'greenfield status,' will require an additional $16 million dollar federal grant. “

SEFOR’s large rusty white reactor dome and derelict campus cover a 3-acre area. Wheeler told the crowd that all radioactive debris will be hauled off by EnergySolutions secure, "rad-waste" disposal trucks for burial at a federally sanctioned nuclear waste landfill, out of state. 

Arkansas anti-nuclear activists have speculated in recent weeks that the facility has been leaking dangerous amounts of radioactivity into the environment, but Jared Thompson, manager of the radioactive materials program at the Arkansas Department of Health, which has regulatory oversight of SEFOR, disputes it. 

“There is minimal radiological effects,” Thompson says. “There are no serious contamination issues at SEFOR.”

The Arkansas Department of Health, working closely with the UA’s Southwest Radiation Lab conducts annual site visits, monitoring SEFOR's structural integrity and measuring radiation levels.  The UA also pays an onsite caretaker to mow the site and keep intruders out.

It's expensive, University of Arkansas Facilities Associate Vice Chancellor Mike Johnson says.  

Credit Jacqueline Froelich
University of Arkansas Facilities Associate Vice Chancellor Mike Johnson, left, watches a power point presentation about SEFOR's cleanup.

“We probably average $40 to $50 thousand dollars a year,” Johnson says. “Recently we’ve had to replace a deep culvert, and some roofing."

The University of Arkansas contracted with EnergySolutions to safely demolish SEFOR because of the firm's track record servicing U.S. nuclear facilities nationwide, as well as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station destroyed by a tsunami five years ago in Japan. 

SEFOR "is a small project in the scheme of things,” Wheeler says, “but we will exercise due diligence required from a radiological health and safety standpoint."

The plant's experimental breeder reactor makes it a bit unusual and worth precautions.

To quell concerns about rumored radiation leaks, Wheeler says the public will be invited to visit the site later in January.

“And for those who are unbelievers,” Wheeler says, “they can bring their radiation meters and walk under and around the reactor where they can see for themselves that nothing is leaking.”

The Strickler plant was decommissioned in 1972 after it fulfilled its research mission: producing electricity while yielding plutonium for reprocessing into future reactor fuel and for weapons. The technology, however, was never fully deployed in the U.S. due to safety concerns and eventual discovery of plentiful global reserves of raw uranium. 

Once SEFOR's demolition and cleanup is complete, later in 2018, the University of Arkansas will either maintain the parcel as a carbon sequestration forest management site or sell it.

Jacqueline Froelich is an award-winning senior news reporter for KUAF-91.3 FM in Fayetteville where she is a long-time station-based correspondent for NPR in Washington D.C. She covers energy, business, education, politics, the environment, and culture. Her work is broadcast locally on KUAF’s daily news magazine, “Ozarks At Large,” and statewide on Arkansas’s three public radio affiliates.
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