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Powerful reminder

Plaque dedicated to former McMurdo nuclear plant marks significant moment in Antarctic history

 

Historic interest in the world’s coldest continent often focuses on the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration or the dawning of the scientific age with the International Geophysical Year (IGY).

Earlier this year, a nearly forgotten footnote in Antarctic history got a permanent page in the record books when officials from the National Science Foundation (NSF) dedicated a bronze plaque commemorating the first and only nuclear power plant to operate on the Ice.

Officials from the Department of Energy joined NSF Director Arden Bement Jr. and NSF Office of Polar Programs (OPP) Director Karl Erb and others in a dedication ceremony at McMurdo Station on Jan. 19, 2010, to acknowledge the 10-year run of the PM-3A nuclear power plant.

“It is one more way to symbolize the continuing commitment the United States has made to support the complex needs of modern science — both here, and throughout the continent,” Erb said.

The plaque will eventually take its rightful place on the side of Observation Hill, where the facility once operated overlooking McMurdo Station from 1962 to 1972.

“In that era, and even until today, that was a pretty elegant piece of engineering,” said Philip Smith, who was deputy director of NSF OPP when the Antarctic program decided to work with the military to install the reactor in 1962. 

Smith and Charles “Chuck” Fegley, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineering Corps who served as officer in charge of the reactor in 1964 and provided support to the plant over several more seasons, were behind the effort to create and install the plaque on Ob Hill.

Smith said the two men, who have known each other since the early 1960s, met again a few years ago at a reunion hosted by the Operation Deep Freeze Association, a group originally founded by Navy veterans of IGY.

“Chuck said that all the guys involved in the power plant felt they had been erased from the history book and forgotten,” Smith recalled. The two men set out to make sure that didn’t happen, easily raising the private funds required to cast the bronze plaque and have it shipped down to Antarctica.

“There were a lot of people who were ready to make contributions,” Smith said. Noted Fegley: “The response to our campaign to raise money for the plaque from among the approximately 400 men and families — too many are already deceased — was overwhelming.”

Sign of the times

Today, the idea of a nuclear power plant in Antarctica might seem antithetical. However, the Antarctic Treaty, which sets out guidelines for the continent’s long-term management, doesn’t prohibit its use. It does prohibit nuclear explosions and requires the disposal of nuclear material out of Antarctica.

Smith said the idea of building a power plant on the Ice had some skeptics, though he wasn’t among them. “This was all before we, as a country, turned against nuclear power,” he explained.

The motivation behind a nuclear reactor was to reduce the amount of fossil fuels needed to power McMurdo Station. In addition to power, the waste heat produced was used to operate a desalinization plant for freshwater production.

“It was actually a very cost effective experiment in terms of the overall costs of the appropriation,” said Smith, a former Army officer who had served under Adm. George Dufek during IGY because of his expertise in polar engineering solutions gained while deployed in Greenland in the 1950s.

A unique experiment

A nuclear power plant in the Antarctic was one of the unique experiments of the Army Nuclear Power Program (ANPP), which involved all of the military branches, to develop small, pressurized water and boiling water nuclear power reactors, primarily at remote, relatively inaccessible sites. In total, eight reactors or plants were built between 1957 and 1967

The military acronym “PM” stood for “portable, medium” output reactor. The number “3” represented the third such reactor in what had been planned as a series of small-scale nuclear power plants that the military could deploy for multiple purposes. The letter “A” indicates a field installation

The first in the PM series, PM-2A, became operational in February 1961 at Camp Century, a buried station 150 miles east of Thule, Greenland. The second, PM-1, a sister plant to the PM-3A in Antarctica, became operational in June 1962 in Sundance, Wyo., at an Air Force radar station. Fegley, a 25-year Navy captain, had received part of his operational training on the Army’s nuclear power plants on PM-2A and at Fort Belvoir, Va.

The men assigned to PM-3A were part of the Naval Nuclear Power Unit, a subcommand under the Naval Facilities Engineering Command. The initials NNPU were the source of the plant’s nickname “Nukey Poo.”

Martin Company, now Lockheed-Martin, designed and fabricated the facility. The reactor equipment for PM-3A was shipped to McMurdo by vessel, but it was designed so that all components could fit inside a C-130 military aircraft for deployment to sites farther inland. Plans for two such reactor sites in Antarctica — the former Byrd Station and South Pole Station — never came to fruition.

U.S. Navy Seabees completed site preparation and excavation for the facility during the 1960-61 summer season. Construction of the plant buildings and equipment followed the next year. The reactor first went critical on March 4, 1962, and began producing power on July 12, 1962.

Fegley was the officer in charge during the winter of 1964 when he formally accepted the responsibility for PM-3A on behalf of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was involved in the military nuclear power program, and the Navy. He spent more than eight years in the Navy’s Shore Nuclear Power Program, making six trips to the Ice in support of the nuclear power plant during the decade of its operation.

Said Fegley via e-mail: “This really was an engineering and logistic achievement: new technology in a very hostile environment. It took the management and technical skills of a team of dedicated men to make it the success that it was.

“It is a shame that the program was eventually dissolved, because the technology could have been improved upon and become useful in places like South Pole Station, where today the logistics of providing enormous quantities of fuel have almost become overwhelming,” he added.

Shutting it down

By the early 1970s, nuclear power in Antarctica had lost a bit of its luster. The Navy and the rest of the military were busy fighting the war in Vietnam, meaning more and more of the management of the U.S. Antarctic Research Program, which later became simply the U.S. Antarctic Program, became the responsibility of the NSF. More and more logistics fell to civilian contractors.

A March 1980 article in the Antarctic Journal references a May 1972 cost-effectiveness study that recommended the power plant be shut down. It required 23 personnel to operate and its 72 percent availability, which was respectable at the time, required a diesel power plant to be staffed year-round as backup.

Then, on Sept. 19, 1972, during a routine shutdown for maintenance, water was found to be leaking into the thermal insulation surrounding the primary (reactor) system, according to Fegley. Repair would have been an impractical and expensive proposition. 

The next 7½ years, until February 1979, was spent decommissioning and removing the facility, including about 11,800 cubic yards of radioactive dirt from the site in compliance with the Antarctic Treaty.

In May 1979, the Department of Energy issued a final release that the site was clean. There was never a release of radiation in excess of safety levels set by the Atomic Energy Commission or any injuries reported in association with the reactor.

Lasting memory

The plaque is currently sitting in a carpenter shop at McMurdo Station for the winter. It will be permanently installed on Observation Hill during the 2010-11 summer season. Ob Hill, which stands about 750 feet tall above McMurdo, is also the site of large wooden cross erected in memory of Capt. Robert F. Scott and the four members of his team who died in 1912 on the return trip from the South Pole.

The plaque will occupy a small piece of real estate where the power plant once stood. Demolition is mostly complete on two obsolete buildings that once sat on the site, including an auxiliary building to the nuclear plant that was used as a cold storage warehouse after PM-3A was decommissioned. The other, an old water plant, had also been used for storage.

George Blaisdell, Operations manager in the NSF OPP’s Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics Division, helped with the logistics of getting the bronze plaque to the Ice. In an e-mail to Fegley, Blaisdell said, “I am happy to have the opportunity to assist in keeping history tangible in McMurdo.”

The U.S. Antarctic Program proposed adding the commemorative plaque to the List of Historic Sites and Monuments at the May 2010 gathering of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Uruguay. The treaty members approved the request. It will be HSM No. 85 on the list. Listing confers “official” recognition under the Treaty system that the historic monument marks something significant in Antarctic history.

A duplicate aluminum plaque will eventually be donated to a new U.S. Navy Seabee Museum planned at Port Hueneme, Calif., where it will be displayed inside the original PM-3A control room console, according to Fegley.

He said the commemoration and recognition are important “because there were a lot of very dedicated men who gave a large portion of their military careers to developing and proving the feasibility of designing, constructing and operating small, portable nuclear power plants in hostile environments.

“These were not just the average sailor, soldier or airman, but the very elite, who went through an intensive academic, specialty and operational training program to be able to operate these plants safely and successfully.”

Fegley said the Navy veterans who once worked at the power plant expressed their excitement about the McMurdo dedication in e-mails.

One, from NNPU Command Master Chief Herb Smith, who served two winters at PM-3A, wrote to Fegley:

“Words cannot express my appreciation for your efforts, as well as the others that assisted, in getting the approval to have the historical plaque placed on Observation Hill. This is indeed a great tribute to all of the men that participated in the successful operation of the PM-3A.”

Most people today don’t know the nuclear power plant ever existed, Herb Smith noted, adding, “Well, no longer will that be the case.”

Sources for this story include www.southpolestation.com, which references several U. S. Navy publications including various Deep Freeze (Task Force 43) cruisebooks and the Bulletin of the U. S. Antarctic Projects Officer; “McMurdo Station reactor site released for unrestricted use,” Antarctic Journal, March 1980; and “Five Years of Nuclear Power at McMurdo Station,” by LCDR W. G. Shafer, Antarctic Journal, March 1967; Guy Guthridge at the National Science Foundation; Philip Smith and Charles Fegley; and Wikipedia entry for “Army Nuclear Power Program.” 

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs