9 Sep 2014 More

Meet the Sturgis: The World's Only Floating Nuclear Reactor

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The Sturgis en route
No, it's not the Philadelphia Experiment, but it is one of a kind: a nuclear power plant built on a cargo ship. It's called the Sturgis, named after a three-star general, and now its heading toward Galveston, Texas to be disassembled after 50 years.

It sounded like a great idea at the time, a nuclear reactor on board an army cargo ship meant to power the locks at the Panama Canal. It completed its mission, but after just seven years it was no longer needed and mothballed. Now, it's being moved to its final destination.

“The Sturgis was fairly highly classified,” says Will Davis, former nuclear reactor operator for the US Navy. “Sturgis has been de-fueled since 1977. The nuclear fuel was taken out."

While the nuclear fuel itself might have been removed, the nuclear reactor remains intact and the ship is still classified as radioactive. But that was the whole plan all along, to store the ship away in a safe harbor while the radioactive elements decayed. Now, the ship has been deemed safe enough to move and scrap for good, but still much care must be taken in doing so.

“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.

Is the Sturgis a danger to the public?

Just a whisper of the word "radioactive" is enough to send some into a panic. Not to worry says Hans Honerlah, a project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. “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.”

By "background" Honerlah means that the radiation levels will be no higher than occur every day in nature. The real concern will be with workers who must get too close to the reactor itself. According to Honerlah, the army will  be sure to “minimize the amount of time any worker is around the radioactivity.”

And what if a hurricane were to hit?

“She will be made water-tight and she will ride out the storm in the port,” says Brenda Barber, also Army Corps manager of the Sturgis Project. “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."

While the radioactive elements remaining will be shipped off and disposed of properly, the remaining parts of the ship will be towed south and sold for scrap. Woodlands-based CB & I has been contracted to do the job for a reported $35 million.

While the army assures that the project is safe, local Galveston officials want more information on the precautions taken to keep their citizens out of harm's way. The Sturgis was and is the only floating nuclear reactor of its kind, and it's doubtful there will ever be another.

by Philip Loyd, Brown Editor

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