The MH-1A, or Mobile High Power Reactor Number 1A, was the Army’s first floating nuclear power plant and the last reactor created under the Army Nuclear Power Program. The Army wanted MH-1A to supply electric power in situations where it was not feasible to rely on conventional power generation methods—during war or natural disasters, for example. The Army envisioned using a highly mobile, large-scale power generator for short-term missions and emergencies where conventional fuel might not be available.
To carry the MH-1A, the Corps of Engineers retrofitted a surplus World War II Liberty cargo ship, the Charles H. Cugle, to become a nuclear power barge. They renamed it the Sturgis, in honor of Lt. Gen. Samuel Sturgis, who was Chief of Engineers during the formative years of the Army Nuclear Power Program. By July 1964, the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company had removed the ship’s engines, inserted a new midsection, and installed the reactor containment structure. After the finishing touches in Mobile, Alabama, the Sturgis was towed to Fort Belvoir for the loading of the reactor core and final testing. The plant began operating on January 25, 1967.
The first assignment for the MH-1A Sturgis came quickly. A drought had caused a shortage of hydroelectric power in Panama, so in July 1968 the Army sent the nuclear power barge to Gatun Lake at the Panama Canal where it provided power essential for canal operations until 1976. That year the Army deemed the cost of maintenance and upgrades to the power plant unjustifiable, and it placed the Sturgis—its reactor removed—into the James River Reserve Fleet. In 2015 the Sturgis was towed to Galveston, Texas, where crews began to decommission the reactor and dismantle the vessel.
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