WASHINGTON – Congress delivered a strong message to the U.S. Department of Energy late Wednesday to get cracking on the long delayed cleanup of an experimental nuclear reactor at the University of Arkansas.
A $30.4 billion bill to fund energy and water development programs cleared the House with a provision that sets aside $2 million to develop an updated cost estimate for an accelerated clean-up plan for the Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor near Strickler, an unincorporated community in Washington County.
The House Appropriations Committee set aside the funding for the project after a 2012 DOE report showed significant progress had been made in cleaning up other "small site" projects but not at SEFOR.
"As a member of the committee, an Arkansan, and an American, I’m glad language in the Fiscal Year 2014 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill will hold the Department of Energy’s feet to the fire and require it to finally get this done," said U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers.
The SEFOR experimental fast breeder reactor was operated between 1969 and 1972, and then deactivated. Its nuclear fuel rods were removed. The University of Arkansas took ownership of the deactivated site in 1975 and used it as a research tool until 1986.
Congress enacted legislation in 2005 that included SEFOR as a pilot cleanup project and in 2009 provided $1.9 million to examine the site and create a complete cleanup plan that was estimated to cost $20 million.
Mike Johnson, associate vice chancellor for facilities at the university, said that the $1.9 million was used to prepare a detailed clean up plan as well as some preliminary work demolishing outer buildings, cleaning up some burn pits and a leach field. A report was submitted to DOE around the beginning of 2011.
"We submitted the report and awaited funding - and there has been no funding," Johnson said in a telephone interview.
Johnson said the House bill — reserving $2 million for the project — is welcomed. The funds would allow officials to go back into the structure and validate what is needed to clean up the site and properly dispose of any remaining radioactive material as well as the core itself.
In particular, Johnson said he hopes to convince the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to waive a requirement that the university hold a 25 percent contingency fund for the clean up. The requirement would add about $5 million to the cost of the project, he said.
Johnson also said funding for the entire cleanup should be secured before moving too far ahead.
"We don’t want to go into the core without assurances of funding," he said.
Until the clean up is completed, SEFOR poses a potential safety hazard for neighbors in rural Washington County.
The 2012 Arkansas Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan said the SEFOR site presents a "sizable danger" of a violent explosion should water penetrate into sodium residue that was a byproduct of the plant’s cooling system. Sodium combined with water produces hydrogen gas that is highly combustible.
"As the facility and its current encapsulation system deteriorate, the potential for moisture to seep in leads to the possibility of a massive explosion. Such an explosion would likely disperse significant amounts of asbestos, radioactive materials, and trace amounts of mercury and other hazardous chemicals throughout the area," the plan states.
Johnson said the university has invested $100,000 in the last two years to address some of the deterioration. But, he said deterioration continues and remains a concern.
"It just needs to be cleaned up," he said.
The House approved the bill, 227-198, largely along party lines. Womack and Reps. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, and Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, voted in favor.
During two days of debate, the House held roll calls on 30 amendments that were largely rejected, including one that would have defunded the Delta Regional Authority. The Arkansas delegation opposed that amendment.
The fate of the House bill remains in doubt. The White House has threatened a veto of it because it reduces funding for alternative energy programs. The Senate has not completed work on its version of the legislation.