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Control room at PM-3A.
Photo Credit: Steve Kauffman/www.southpolestation.com
The control room at PM-3A, circa 1965. A replica of the bronze plaque on Ob Hill will be donated to a Navy museum in California, with plans to display it in the original PM-3A control room. The PM-3A memorial has also been added to the List of Historic Sites and Monuments. 

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 External U.S. government site, 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.”

Nuclear plant in Antarctica
Photo Credit: Edward Steinfeld
PM-3A nuclear power plant in December 1962.

The U.S. Antarctic Program proposed adding the commemorative plaque to the List of Historic Sites and Monuments External Non-U.S. government site Link to PDF file at the May 2010 gathering of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting External Non-U.S. government site 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 External U.S. government site Museum External Non-U.S. government site 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.”

Building being demolished.
Photo Courtesy: John Meyers
PM-3A auxiliary building under demolition.

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 External Non-U.S. government site, 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.” Back   1 2 3