The world’s only floating nuclear reactor powers to its end

The Sturgis enters Galveston Port (Courtesy U.S. Corps of Engineers)

To a casual observer, the small barge with a thick, concrete, protruding deck looks like an old vessel that has no purpose.

The larger merchant ships docked at Pier 41 in Galveston, Texas dwarf it. Their modern design and massive presence juxtaposes the vessel’s aged and lost purpose.

The barge named Sturgis could be mistaken as a just a load of scrap, which would be true. To a more knowledgeable person, the oddity stirs the pit of the stomach.

That load of scrap was the world’s first floating nuclear reactor plant.

In the 1960s and 1970s the Sturgis proved a powerful tool that showed the world how quick non-fossil energy can arrive in remote coastal lands. It’s presence during a fiery period of unrest in the Panama Canal also proved that nuclear power had a role in national security.

Forty-seven years after its heralded beginning the government could not muster enough support to preserve it. It sits in a shipyard where crews dismantle a relic of American’s energy plan.

“This is a project to address one of our challenges we have in terms of decommissioning a vessel that has no value anymore to the nation,” said Col. Richard Pannell, commanding engineer of the Galveston District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in October 2014.

In post-World War II, the country was finding ways to adapt atom radiation to peace time efforts. For its part, the federal government funded the Army Nuclear Power Program in 1945. The quiet effort operated at Fort Belvoir, Virginia where teams built eight small reactors. Operating under the authority of the Atomic Energy Act, the corps used the reactors in remote locales that needed sustainable power.

Sturgis was named in honor of Lt. General Samuel D. Sturgis, who was the corps commanding officer. At 10-megawatts, it was the largest of the reactors. The low enriched uranium core became known as MH-1A. The term was an acronym for “mobile, high-powered, first-of-its-kind field installation,” according to a 1996 article from Rod Adams in Atomic Insights.

It had one specific purpose: provide reliable energy to an unstable region.

The floating nuclear reactor plant began from a renovated World War II Liberty Ship. The Charles H. Cugle was chosen from 2,700 ships docked after the war. It had a good-quality strong hull that could haul tanks and boxed aircraft.

While the Cugle was being converted in 1963, crews created the nuclear reactor container near the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Sturgis reactor was built inside a 350-ton “spheroid” that had all the components to create nuclear energy. During the historic trip to the river, tractors pulled it overland, power companies moved utility lines and police stopped traffic.

At the time, corps documentaries state it was the single heaviest item ever moved over a public highway.

Once it reached the river, it went onto a barge to meet the Cugle. A heavy crane held the container in the air until the Cugle was pushed underneath. Then it was lowered and secured in the vessel’s mid-body. The newly-minted Sturgis returned to an Alabama shipyard to wait for its trip to the Panama Canal.

In the early 1960s, the Panamanian people were filled with nationalism and the American-controlled canal became the centerpiece for political unrest. The controversy piqued in 1968 when a coup toppled the government and started a political trajectory that lasted for decades. In the months that followed, Manuel Noriega rose to the chief of military under Omar Torrijos.

Sturgis arrived offshore during the government overthrow, which coincided with the height of the Vietnam War. Canal operations were a matter of national security. According to a 1988 Chicago Tribune article, 90 percent of the ammunition used in the Vietnam War was hauled on ships that traveled through Panama.

The military and civilians who worked with the United States received power from Sturgis. That relief allowed a hydroelectric plant to power the canal and keep it filled with water.

During the nine years Sturgis was in Panama, U.S. sentiment changed and anti-nuclear movements grew. The Army decommissioned her in 1976.

They drained the radioactive liquids and removed the uranium-housing fuel rods. She entered long-term storage at Fort Belvoir and was left to let her radioactive levels naturally lower.

At the time, the government expected the Sturgis core wouldn’t be ready for removal until 2027. That changed in the late 1990s when the corps was surprised to find radioactivity much lower than expected. They found that cobalt, a major radioactive nucleoid, had decayed by 99.2 percent.

They speeded the removal plan and towed the vessel 1,750 miles from Fort Belvoir to Galveston. The island has a history with nuclear vessels. In the 1950s, the N.S. Savannah, a nuclear-powered commercial merchant ship, once docked at a local shipyard where it was maintained and repaired.

“So almost all of the cobalt is now gone,” said Brenda Barber, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager for the Sturgis. “So that makes it safe for us to go in and remove these large components without putting our employees or the public at risk of high doses.”

Today, crews are removing solid, liquid and mixed nuclear waste. Reports state the corps is predominately concerned with parts that became contaminated during the energy process. Crews will put each piece into containers and place them on trucks where they begin a 10-hour trip over public roadways to an Odessa-area company. The site is one of only a few nationwide that will deal with nuclear waste disposal.

The dismantling gains very little notice with the islanders but still sparks a tart response from local politicians. A few remain unpleased with the corps communications with them.

Norm Pappous, one of the most outspoken island councilmembers, said he had no qualms with the nuclear removal or the corps’ ability to contain potential health risks.

“I don’t have any reason to doubt that what’s being done over on Pier 41 right now is being done with the highest professional standards,” he said. “That was never really my concern.”

Instead, he charged that the corps attempted to sneak Sturgis onto the island. The corps legally-required public notice never contained the words “nuclear” and “radiological,” which Pappous said would have sparked a community reaction. An e-mail told the city council that Sturgis would arrive.

“When these things occur, the public is supposed to receive relevant information and when you are dealing with nuclear radiological processes, that is relevant information,” he said.

Shortly after some residents raised social justice issues. Carol Holloway worked at the corps for 34 years where she conducted environmental studies. She said her former employer did not account for compounded and mitigating risks.

“The very fact that you have published that you are not affecting The Strand but you’re placing the site of the dismantling in the area that has a 98 percent minority basis with a 60 percent poverty rate, this in itself alone warrants further investigating,” she told city council in October 2014.

The Strand refers to an upscale, historic area that attracts about seven million cruise tourists a year. Once local politicians understood that work would occur in the midst of several tourist events they took another look at Sturgis.

“I’m now concerned about the health to our citizens and the image of the port area because it will be close to the cruise line,” said Ralph McMorris, councilmember, at a council meeting in 2014. “Even if there is no damage, there will be a perception. So this all important to us.”

The controversy led to a series of open meetings and tours. The city’s first responders boarded the vessel and learned that handling an incident on Sturgis was like a traditional emergency. The corps addressed their health and environmental assessments. Removal methods were explained, Barber said.

“I think we proved it to them and they realized it wasn’t what they thought it was,” she said.

Until next year, Sturgis will remain in Galveston. Then, it will head to Brownsville, Texas where its pieces will be recycled or sold for scrap metal. As nuclear-powered vessels become more commonplace, the Sturgis will become a unique footnote, Pappous said.

“It should be memorialized for the service it gave the country over such a long period of time and the importance it played in the Panama Canal,” Pappous said. “I understand the context it plays in America’s history and the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

The Virginia State Historic Preservation Office will house a multimedia history package to commemorate its existence. The exhibit will feature construction documents and oral histories. Documentaries, reports and histories about its presence in Panama and Fort Belvoir will also be available.

“We would need to find a sponsor that would take on ownership of the Sturgis, support the decommissioning, and then continue to fund and maintain her long term, including finding a home where she could be berthed as a museum,” Barber said. “That was when we didn’t find much interest.”

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