Recently I took my family to the Tampa, Florida Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), which had a traveling exhibit on Antarctica. The display included a great deal of information about the dedicated explorers and unique wildlife indigenous to that remote land with one of the harshest climates on earth.
Several of the exploration groups died from exposure, lack of water or exhaustion, but more challengers kept coming. As a somewhat spoiled American, I kept wondering why people would want to live in a place where it is difficult or impossible to obtain a hot meal and a warm shower.
As it turns out, only explorers and travelers thought it worth the sacrifice; until the establishment of a research base – complete with running water and electricity – no long term human presence was ever established.
Part of the exhibit was a time line of important historic events. My thirteen year old daughter, knowing much interest I have in anything about nuclear power pointed out the following statement.
1962 – The United States Navy installs a nuclear power plant (nicknamed Nukey Poo) at McMurdo Base. It is shut down in 1972 after problems with fires and radiation leaks. Thousands of tons of contaminated earth are shipped back to the U. S. for disposal.
Grains of Truth
Even though I am pretty well versed in the history of the Navy’s involvement in nuclear power, I had never heard such a negative description of the PM-3A, the plant installed at McMurdo. Since I know people with first hand knowledge of the plant and its history, I decided to do a little research.
Here are some of the comments I received from men who actually operated the plant. As people who still have some ties to the organization that used to own the plant, they have asked not to be named.
“Don’t know where the information you referred to came from, but it’s grossly misrepresentative of the situation. There was no “history of fires and radiation leaks” at the plant. Some trouble in that regard but nothing that would even cause a reactor scram.”
“On decommissioning, there were tons of soil removed, but only to ensure that there was no claim that radioactivity had been introduced or left in the Antarctic soil as a result of the plant’s operation. The radioactivity that existed in the soil that was removed was thought by most to be that which was there naturally before the plant was built (but there was apparently no baseline to confirm that, so the soil was removed.”
“I believe the PM-3A was decommissioned due to suspected chloride stress corrosion in the pressure vessel, however, this was never confirmed.”
The men assigned to the PM-3A came from either construction battalion (SEABEE) ratings or from the hospital corpsman ratings (for health physics.) They were assigned to the Navy Nuclear Power Unit, a sub command under the Naval Facilities Engineering Command. (The initials NNPU were the source of the nickname “Nukey Poo.”) They were the only sailors in the Navy to operate a nuclear power plant that was not under Rickover’s control.
The NNPU training program was closely associated with the Army Nuclear Power Program. Practical training at functioning plants took place at all of the Army’s nuclear reactors (SL-1, SM-1A, PM-2A, PM-1, and MH-1A). Between 1956 and 1977 there were 278 people trained in the program. Of those, 38 later earned commissions as officers. Those men did a fine job in a difficult assignment; they deserve better than for school children to be taught that they operated a leaky plant that contaminated thousands of tons of pristine Antarctic soil.
This issue of AEI is devoted providing more accurate information than that which is going to be exhibited in science museums all over the country. We hope that you share it with as many people as possible. If the Antarctica exhibit comes to your town, please do not hesitate to contact us to find out how you can obtain copies for distribution.
(Added on April 1, 2011)
Plaque dedicated to former McMurdo nuclear plant marks significant moment in Antarctic history