Is Galveston Ready for Nuclear Barge Sturgis?

A floating nuclear reactor from the 1960s will arrive later this year to be disassembled by the Army Corps of Engineers. What could go wrong?

By Cort McMurray September 9, 2014

Nuclear Barge Sturgis

There’s not a lot to see in Houston. Some of you will disagree: there will be huffing and puffing about our Rich Arts Scene and our World Class Restaurants and our Buffalo Bayou, which Isn’t As Bad As It Used To Be. Somebody will post an insane, highly suspect statistic, something along the lines of, “Do you realize that more people have attended performances at the Hobby Center in the last three months than have ever attended a professional baseball game in the history of the world?” Inevitably, the Beer Can House will be mentioned, for, you see, it is a house, made out of beer cans, and therefore represents the Best That Is Within Us. 

No one wants to admit that their hometown is no great shakes. It’s like slapping a bumper sticker that says, “My Child Does the Best He Can at Herbert Hoover Middle School” on the back of your Subaru: not quite condemnation, but not exactly chest thumping pride, either.

Houston isn’t unique. These days, there’s no There, anywhere. San Francisco is a crushing disappointment, a disheartening collection of indolent, possibly diseased seals and overhyped restaurants, offset by one terrific bridge. New York stopped being New York about a quarter century ago.  Now it’s less a city than a theoretical construct, The Idea of New York, populated by tourists from places like Topeka and Sugar Land, who eat crappy, overpriced hotdogs from street carts and say “Fuggettabboutit!” to establish the proper mood. I used to joke that to see the sights in Houston, you have to drive to San Antonio, but get past the Alamo, and is there really anything worth seeing in San Antonio? The whole country is boiling down into a watery gruel of fast food outlets and fashion baseball caps, a greater Des Moines of the soul, and we’re just part of it.


That is about to change. Metro Houston is on the cusp of Something Big, something that nobody else has. Sturgis is coming. No, I’m not talking about a little town filled with middle aged accountants, desperately grasping at Fleeting Youth by tooling about on overpriced Harleys (Texas already has one of those. It’s called Fredericksburg on the Weekends). This is MH-1A, also known as the US Nuclear Barge Sturgis. It’s radioactive. And it’s heading for Galveston

The Sturgis was the US military’s only floating nuclear reactor. In 1969, giddy with self-confidence over the swimming success that was the Vietnam War, our Pentagon brain trust decided that what America needed was the “clean, safe, too cheap to meter” goodness of nuclear energy, on a gigantic steel barge. For a while, the Sturgis provided power for the Panama Canal, but less than a decade after it was commissioned, this Three Mile Island of the Waves proved too costly and inefficient to operate.  It was towed to Newport News and mothballed, its reactor rods removed, while Uncle Sam pondered his next move. 

That’s where we come in. 

Sometime in December, under the aegis of the US Army Corps of Engineers (their motto, no lie, is “Let Us Try,” which is the engineering equivalent of “My Child Does The Best He Can at Herbert Hoover Middle School”), the Sturgis will be towed to a shipyard in Galveston, where its radioactive innards will be decontaminated and dismantled.  The Corps, which has a history of doing to Gulf Coast communities what a well-thrown bowling ball does to a plate glass window (just ask New Orleans, which in 2005 was very nearly obliterated thanks to the Corps’ watchful care over its levees) assures us that this is all Perfectly Safe. Their PR flack was positively sanguine at a recent press conference.  “We do this sort of thing all the time,” she breezed, as if towing a radioactive barge 1,800 miles and storing it in the shadow of the fourth largest city in America was hitting the Taco Bell drive-thru for a Burrito Supreme and a large Mountain Dew.

Something’s going to go wrong. It’s the Corps, it’s the Gulf, and it’s Houston: there’s disaster written into the project’s DNA. I say, embrace it.  This is our chance, our chance to have something that separates us from the pack, something that quite literally boils the Des Moines right out of us. Imagine warm summer nights on Seawall Boulevard. First, dinner at one of Tillman Fertitta’s tasteful, delightfully understated bistros.  Then a walk along the shore: just you and your loved one, accompanied only by the sweet perfume of several thousand tons of rotting seaweed. You stroll, hands entwined, speaking that secret language that only lovers share, stopping to wonder as the crimson and pink of the setting sun gives way to the steady green luminosity of Nuclear Barge Sturgis. You feel warm all over, and that sensation in your stomach – is it the butterflies of romance, or is it the pulse of 20,000 roentgens? It doesn’t matter. You’re young, you’re Houstonian, and you’re in love, and there’s no place else like this in the world.

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