The Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor was built in 1968 near Strickler. It was decommissioned in 1974, and nuclear fuel and coolant were removed. The plant was given to the U of A, which has been trying to get federal funding to dismantle it for more than four decades. In 2016 U.S. Sen. John Boozman and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack announced a $10.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to begin removing the remaining hazardous materials and begin demolishing the buildings.

More than 400 people showed up on Jan. 19 hoping for a look inside the facility before demolition begins. Only a few people were allowed inside at a time. The tours were conducted by staff from Energy Solutions, the contractor that will handle the cleanup. The original brochure for the facility was reprinted for the occasion.

Most of those who took the tour said they’d been curious about the plant for years, and enjoyed getting to see what was inside. Others had actually worked in SEFOR, and were saying a last goodbye. Tour participants signed waivers and wore hard hats and vests. There was little danger from radiation, and the tour routes were carefully planned to be as safe as possible, but navigating inside such old buildings could be risky.

SEFOR is made up of several buildings. The administrative offices were the first thing on the tour. The control room of the facility was also located in this part. Workers spent so much time at SEFOR, the facility even included beds and showers.

The next part of the tour wound through the building that housed the reactor. It was full of steep staircases, narrow passages and vintage signs and equipment. A four foot thick bioshield wall encloses the actual reactor.

When the reactor was decommissioned, the nuclear material was removed from the site. Sodium, which was used as a coolant, still causes an eerie green glow. A circular door near the reactor leads to a tunnel–an emergency exit, now sealed with concrete.

The first phase of the cleanup should be finished by the end of September. The university is hoping to receive an additional $16 million federal grant for the final phase, which will return the site to greenfield conditions, possibly before the end of 2018.