Army Nuclear Power Program

US Army Engineer Reactors Group letterhead

The Army Nuclear Power Program (ANPP) was a program of the United States Army to develop small pressurized water and boiling water nuclear power reactors to generate electrical and space-heating energy primarily at remote, relatively inaccessible sites. The ANPP had several accomplishments, but ultimately it was considered to be "a solution in search of a problem." The U.S. Army Engineer Reactors Group managed this program and it was headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The program began in 1954 and had effectively terminated by about 1977, with the last class of NPP operators graduating in 1977. Work continued for some time thereafter either for decommissioning of the plants or placing them into SAFSTOR (long term storage and monitoring before decommissioning). The current development of small modular reactors has led to a renewed interest in military applications.[1][2]


There was interest in the possible application of nuclear power to land-based military needs as early as 1952. A memo from the Secretary of Defense, dated 10 February 1954, assigned the Army the responsibility for "developing nuclear power plants to supply heat and electricity at remote and relatively inaccessible military installations." The Secretary of the Army established the Army Nuclear Power Program and assigned it to the Corps of Engineers.[3]

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 made the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) responsible for R&D in the nuclear field, so that the ANPP then became a joint interagency 'activity' of the Department of the Army (DA) and the AEC. When the Atomic Energy Act was revised in 1954, Paragraph 91b authorized the Department of Defense to obtain special nuclear material for use in defense utilization facilities. The focus of the Army Nuclear Power Program was on power production facilities while the Naval Reactors Program concentrated on nuclear propulsion for submarines and ships. On 9 April 1954 the Chief of Engineers established the US Army Engineer Reactors Group to perform the missions assigned by DA. Essentially, these missions were to:[3]

In a Department of the Army Approved Qualitative Materiel Development Objective for Nuclear Power Plants, dated 7 January 1965, these objectives were stated for the program:[3]

The AEC ultimately concluded that the probability of achieving the objectives of the Army Nuclear Power Program in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost was not high enough to justify continued funding of its portion of projects to develop small, stationary, and mobile reactors. Cutbacks in military funding for long-range research and development because of the Vietnam War led the AEC to phase out its support of the program in 1966. The costs of developing and producing compact nuclear power plants were so high that they could be justified only if the reactor had a unique capability and filled a clearly defined objective backed by DOD. After that, the Army's participation in nuclear power plant research and development efforts steadily declined and eventually stopped altogether.[4]

List of plants

Eight plants were constructed. Due to the requirement for a small physical size, all these reactors other than the MH-1A used highly enriched uranium (HEU). The MH-1A had more space to work with, and more weight-carrying capacity, so this was a low-enrichment reactor; i.e., larger and heavier. The MH-1A was briefly considered for use in Vietnam, but the idea of anything nuclear in Vietnam was quickly rejected by the State Department.[3]

The plants are listed in order of their initial criticality. See the gallery of photos in the next section. Sources for this data include the only known book on the ANPP, by Suid,[5] and a DOE document.[6]

Ft. Belvoir Virginia
NRTS, Idaho
On January 3, 1961, the reactor was being prepared for restart after a shutdown of eleven days over the holidays. Maintenance procedures were in progress, which required the main central control rod to be manually withdrawn a few inches to reconnect it to its drive mechanism; at 9:01 p.m. this rod was suddenly withdrawn too far, causing SL-1 to go prompt critical instantly. In four milliseconds, the heat generated by the resulting enormous power surge caused water surrounding the core to begin to explosively vaporize. The water vapor caused a pressure wave to strike the top of the reactor vessel, causing water and steam to spray from the top of the vessel. This extreme form of water hammer propelled control rods, shield plugs, and the entire reactor vessel upwards. A later investigation concluded that the 26,000-pound (12,000 kg) vessel had jumped 9 feet 1 inch (2.77 m) and the upper control rod drive mechanisms had struck the ceiling of the reactor building prior to settling back into its original location.[7][8] The spray of water and steam knocked two operators onto the floor, killing one and severely injuring another. One of the shield plugs on top of the reactor vessel impaled the third man through his groin and exited his shoulder, pinning him to the ceiling.[7] The victims were Army Specialists John A. Byrnes (age 27) and Richard Leroy McKinley (age 22), and Navy Seabee Construction Electrician First Class (CE1) Richard C. Legg (age 26).[9][10]
It was later established that Byrnes (the reactor operator) had lifted the rod and caused the excursion, Legg (the shift supervisor) was standing on top of the reactor vessel and was impaled and pinned to the ceiling, and McKinley, the trainee who stood nearby, was later found alive by rescuers.[7] All three men succumbed to injuries from physical trauma;[7] the radiation from the nuclear excursion would have given the men no chance of survival.
This was the only fatal incident at a US nuclear power reactor, which destroyed the reactor. This incident was important in the development of commercial power because future designs prevented the core from going critical with the removal of a single rod.
Camp Century, Greenland
PM-1 Nuclear Power Plant, Sundance Air Force Station
McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Ft. Greely, Alaska
Power Barge Sturgis, Gunston Cove, Ft. Belvoir,
MH-1A control room simulator

Key to the codes:

Of the eight built, six produced operationally useful power for an extended period. Many of the designs were based on United States Naval reactors, which were proven compact reactor designs.



Initial criticality to shutdown (approximate)

Significant accomplishments

References for this list include the DOE document,[6] the Suid book,[5] and the Briefing Book.[3]

Nuclear power plant operator training

The Nuclear Power Plant Operator Course (NPPOC) was conducted at Ft. Belvoir. Applicants for the program were enlisted men who had to commit to serving a minimum of two years after completion of training. The requirements for admission to the NPPOC included aptitude test scores at least as stringent as those required for admission to Officer Candidate School.[15] Over 1,000 Nuclear Power Plant operators were licensed between the years 1958 through 1977. The NPPOC was an intense and academically challenging year-long course.[16]

See also


  1. Nuclear Power: An Option for the Army's Future
  2. COL Paul E. Roege - Can nuclear energy fill critical gaps in the military energy portfolio? @ TEAC3 - YouTube
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Army Nuclear Power Program: Past, Present, Future. A briefing document prepared and presented to the Ad Hoc Study Group of the Army Scientific Advisory Panel, 10–11 February 1969
  4. Pfeffer, Macon, Nuclear Power: An Option for the Army's Future, Army Logistician, PB 700-01-5, Vol 33, Issue 5, Sept/Oct 2001, retrieved from on January 30, 2009
  5. 1 2 Suid, L. H., The Army's Nuclear Power Program: The Evolution of a Support Agency, Greenwood (1990), ISBN 978-0-313-27226-4
  6. 1 2 Office of the Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs (January 2001), Highly Enriched Uranium: Striking A Balance - A Historical Report On The United States Highly Enriched Uranium Production, Acquisition, And Utilization Activities From 1945 Through September 30, 1996 (Revision 1 (Redacted For Public Release) ed.), U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, retrieved 2009-06-13
  7. 1 2 3 4 Tucker, Arthur; Tucker, Sharon (1988). "Catnip and the catnip response". Economic Botany. 42 (2): 214–231. doi:10.1007/BF02858923.
  8. Stacy, Susan M. (2000). Proving the Principle - A History of The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, 1949-1999 (PDF). U.S. Department of Energy, Idaho Operations Office. ISBN 0-16-059185-6. Chapter 15.
  9. "Nuclear Experts Probe Fatal Reactor Explosion". Times Daily. January 5, 1961. Retrieved July 30, 2010.
  10. "Richard Legg" (JPEG). Find A Grave. 14 May 2011. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  11. PM-2A
  12. Atomic Energy, Volume 9, Number 4 - SpringerLink
  14. Antarctic Environmental Awareness Pages
  15. Suid, p. 36
  16. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-01-09. Retrieved 2009-02-26.

External links

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