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story.lead_photo.caption Visitors and officials from the University of Arkansas and Energy Solutions speak Jan. 19 during a tour of the shuttered SEFOR nuclear facility near Strickler in southern Washington County.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Work to cleanup a nuclear reactor test site owned by the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville will come to a halt by the end of this month because of a lack of funding, said Mike Johnson, UA's associate vice chancellor for facilities.

But he said it's possible a request for $8 million from the federal government will come through to allow for the project's completion over the next 12 months. Crews are expected to maintain a "periodic" presence after April 1, he said, and there's a plan that allows for a restart with 45 days notice to begin removal of the facility's radioactive reactor core.

Located about 20 miles southwest of Fayetteville, the Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor, often referred to as SEFOR, ceased operations in the early 1970s, with UA taking over ownership in 1975.

A $10.5 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, announced in October 2016, helped jump-start remediation of the site in rural Washington County. Thousands of pounds of low-level radioactive waste have since been trucked away to a specialized disposal facility in Utah.

Johnson and clean-up officials with nuclear services company Energy Solutions will host a community meeting at 6 p.m. today at the Strickler Volunteer Fire Department to go over the latest project details.

"We still believe that there remains a slight chance of additional FY 18 funds," Johnson said in an email Wednesday, referring to the federal fiscal year which extends through September.

The request for $8 million would bring the total project cost to $24 million, he said.

After April 1, the plan is for staff with UA or Utah-based Energy Solutions to visit the site likely every week, Johnson said. Radioactive materials licenses would remain in place and some storage of equipment would continue, he said.

The cost this month in transitioning to what Johnson referred to as SAFSTOR status -- a term defined by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a method of decommissioning that involves a facility being safely stored to be decontaminated later -- is about $60,000, he said.

Costs beginning April 1 would be about $4,000 per month for up to 12 months, with it then costing about $175,000 to restart cleanup with 45 days notice, he said.

"Contract modifications are currently underway to make these firm numbers," Johnson said, referring to work with Energy Solutions, the company overseeing the cleanup.

A more complete pullback would have meant "significant additional risk management responsibilities" for the university as well as additional financial costs for restarting work, Johnson said.

The reactor was built in 1968 with funding from what was known as the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. It was never hooked up to any turbine machinery so no electricity was produced.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville took over ownership of the site in 1975 for use as a research tool for graduate students.

Fuel used in the reactor was removed from the site after it ceased operating, Dean Wheeler, the Energy Solutions project manager for the SEFOR clean-up, said during a public tour of the site in January 2017.

The tour, attended by roughly 400 people, offered the public a rare glimpse at a site that, by 1986, had fallen out of use.

UA has long sought federal aid to clean up the site. The university previously estimated the total project cost to be $26.1 million. In 2009, UA was awarded a federal planning grant of $1.9 million, and, after the U.S. Department of Energy grant announcement in 2016, the university has received about $5 million in additional funds from a federal appropriations bill.

Johnson said there are no available university resources to help fund the cleanup, and the university "would not expect that to be a future consideration."

Metro on 03/15/2018

Print Headline: Cleanup of atomic reactor to halt soon

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