First floating nuclear power station to be scrapped

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The USS Sturgis in Ft. Belvoir for operational testing.
The USS Sturgis in Ft. Belvoir for operational testing.

The USS Sturgis, better known as the first ship converted to carry a nuclear reactor, is set to be towed from its current berth at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in the James River of Virginia to Galveston, Texas in order to be scrapped.

On Tuesday, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers will hold a public hearing in Galveston in order to detail the plan to scrap the decommissioned vessel.

The Sturgis is expected to arrive in Galveston by the end of the month where additional radioactive waste materials will be removed, before the remaining portions of the barge will be transported to Brownsville, Texas for disposal or recycling as scrap.

History of the MH-1A – USS Sturgis

USS Sturgis

The SS Charles H. Cugle was a World War II Liberty ship that was assigned to the Mobil Reserve Fleet until March, 1963, when it was selected for conversion to a mobile nuclear power production facility.

During the conversion process that was conducted under a $17.2 million contract, the ship was essentially converted into a barge, the propulsion system was removed because the ship would spend most of its time anchored in one position without being moved.

USS Sturgis Diagram

The midsection of the ship was also replaced to accommodate a pressurized water reactor, primary and secondary cooling systems, electrical equipment, 350-ton steel containment and a concrete collision barrier.

After the conversion, the ship was renamed the USS Sturgis and began operational testing in 1967 at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.

A photo of the USS Sturgis arriving in Panama
A photo of the USS Sturgis arriving in Panama

In 1968 the ship was towed to the Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal Zone and began producing electricity for military and civilian personnel use.

After only 8 years of operation, additional land-based electrical power production was acquired by the Panama Canal Company, and by 1976 it had been determined that the USS Sturgis would no longer be required.  Between December 1976 and March 1977, the ship was towed back to Ft. Belvoir where the decision was made to decommission the reactor which had sustained damage during severe weather encountered on the tow back from Panama.

The reactor onboard the Sturgis had only been operated at half power for nine years, which equates to a total operating time of 4.86 years at full-power.

After the reactor had been de-fueled and some areas decontaminated, the ship was towed to the James River Reserve Fleet in Newport News, Virginia and placed into safe storage in order to allow some of the radionuclides time to decay before further dismantling.

The used spent fuel from the reactor was shipped to Savannah River, South Carolina, while two unused fuel elements were shipped to the Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

On March 27th, 2014, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded Chicago Bridge & Iron a $34.5 million dollar contract for the decommissioning, dismantling, and disposal of the PWR reactor from the Sturgis barge, which had already been de-fueled, decontaminated, and prepped for towing to Galveston.

In the 1970’s, original decommissioning estimates included a 50-year safe storage period and did not believe the vessel would be ready for final dismantling until 2027; but by 1998 a study was funded for the U.S. Army that concluded that maintaining reactors in safe storage conditions may not be the most cost effective option.  These findings led the army to develop a faster decommissioning plan for the USS Sturgis.

Source: Miami Herald

Source: Army Corps of Engineers

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