The Army Nuclear Power program recognized the potential benefits of putting a nuclear power plant on a water mobile platform in the early 1960s.
In January, 1963, construction began on the Sturgis, a World War II vintage Liberty ship hull modified to accept installation of a 10,000 kilowatt pressurized water nuclear steam plant.
Designated the MH-1A, (mobile, high-powered, first of a kind, field installation) the generating plant on board the Sturgis provided power to the Panama Canal Zone grid from 1968 to 1975.
The reactor was the most powerful plant in the Army’s small fleet of reactor plants. Unlike the smaller Army reactors, it had a low enriched uranium core. It was also the last one to be decommissioned, since it provided a vital service that was not easily replaced.
MH-1A’s power replaced the output of a hydroelectric plant, allowing the water from Gatun Lake to be used to fill Canal locks instead of being used to produce electricity.
Stationed in the Canal during the height of the Vietnam War, MH-1A’s contribution to the war effort allowed 2,500 more ships per year to pass through the Canal than would have been possible without her power.
Eventually, even the MH-1A became too expensive to maintain. Like all of the Army’s nuclear power plants, it was a one-of-a-kind machine, with a unique set of spare parts, operating procedures and machinery quirks.
It also required a group of highly trained specialists, all of whom required a regular rotation away from the plant in order to continue their Army careers. The burden of maintaining several unique specialties, ensuring adequate training, and keeping a suitable management structure was difficult for one small generating plant to handle on its own merits.
Like most nuclear plant retirements, the actual situation that resulted in its retirement was the need for a relatively minor system update that might have been completed had it been one of many plants. If MH-1A had been one of many similar plants, the cost of the planning and design work needed for the job could have been amortized over several units.
Instead of being the forerunner for a series of similar machines, MH-1A has been relegated to the status of historical footnote. Its former operators gather along with the former operators of other Army plants, sharing memories and wondering why their pioneering efforts went for naught.