FAYETTEVILLE — Cleanup at a nuclear reactor test site built in the late 1960s began this year after three decades of waiting. Thousands of pounds of low-level radioactive waste have since been trucked away from rural Washington County to specialized waste facilities outside the state.
Now the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, the site owner, faces the possibility of another delay as it awaits news of federal funding to finish the cleanup of the Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor, often referred to as SEFOR.
“We need $10.1 million dollars in FY 18 appropriations,” said Mike Johnson, UA’s associate vice chancellor for facilities, referring to the federal fiscal year.
If the money comes through by mid-January, the final stage of remediation — removal of the reactor core, the radioactive heart of the site — will begin without interruption, he said. Avoiding any delays means that approximately 620 acres about 20 miles southwest of Fayetteville could be cleared for use without restrictions by the end of next year, Johnson said.
Without the money, however, UA would have a decision to make with no other funding sources lined up, Johnson said. The university could anticipate federal funding coming through in the near future. The specialized cleanup team under contract with UA might be kept waiting in the wings at a cost of roughly $200,000 for up to a year, Johnson said.
The other option would be to essentially end cleanup rather than keeping things ready for a quick restart. UA would face an expense of roughly $105,000 to first secure the site for a potentially longer period of waiting and then approximately $310,000 whenever it’s time to remobilize specialty crews, Johnson said. The university will be the primary decision-maker, but state environmental regulators would be consulted, he said.
The total cost of the project has been estimated by UA to be $26.1 million. Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded the university a $10.5 million grant to jump-start the project after UA in 2009 was awarded a federal planning grant of $1.9 million. About $5 million in additional funds have since come from a federal appropriations bill.
Johnson said the SEFOR test site cleanup is much smaller in scope and considered a lower risk than the decommissioning of some other nuclear sites that have yet to be cleaned up. But he pointed to the progress made this year as a reason why the project should be awarded additional funding.
“I remain optimistic, because I think this team and, with this support, has done everything we said we’re going to do on that schedule, at that fixed price,” Johnson said.
He noted the continuing uncertainty among federal lawmakers, however, as they rely on what are known as continuing resolutions to cover government expenses over time periods of just a few weeks.
Federal legislators from Arkansas described the SEFOR cleanup as a priority.
“As Congress continues to determine a path forward for funding the government, Senator Boozman will continue to advocate for the important cleanup work at SEFOR,” Patrick Creamer, senior communications adviser for Sen. John Boozman, R-Arkansas, said in an email.
A spokesman for Rep. Steve Womack, R-Arkansas, referred to a statement in June, when Womack said the SEFOR cleanup “has been and will continue to be a priority of ours until completion.”
On Wednesday, a community meeting was held at the Strickler Fire Department to describe work done at the site over the previous three months. Dean Wheeler, project manager for Utah-based Energy Solutions, said about 16,000 pounds of material with some radioactivity, including extension rods used to handle reactor fuel when the site was operating, had been trucked away earlier in the month.
Apart from the main reactor core and reflectors, “all of the other (radioactive) waste is now gone,” Wheeler said, with thousands of pounds of material also trucked away earlier in the year. Outbuildings have also been demolished.
Future work scheduled through March includes cutting away sections of a containment shield designed to prevent radiation from escaping into the atmosphere and also cutting down portions of a thick wall that shielded workers from radiation. The schedule calls for a temporary roof and weather shield to be affixed to what remains. The reactor, built with funding from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, according to UA, never was hooked up to turbine equipment so no electricity was produced, but it did work as planned.
The site ceased operations in the early 1970s, with UA taking ownership in 1975 to use it for research. By 1986 the site fell out of use.
Johnson noted that Womack and Boozman each serve on appropriations and budget committees, and he said he’s asked the U.S. Department of Energy for funds to complete the project.
“They have their job and we have our job, and hopefully with our congressmen in the position they’re in, we’ll be able to work our way through it,” Johnson said.