A Cleveland Wrecking Company crew has halfway demolished a nuclear power plant in South Carolina that was “built to last a lifetime” and was instrumental in the filming of an Academy Award-winning underwater adventure movie.
The Cleveland crew wasn’t overly impressed with the Hollywood angle: It simply struck the old movie set and recycled it along with other abandoned facilities on the 2,000-acre (800-ha) site.
The scrapped Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant is near Broad River in South Carolina, about 10 mi. (16 km) from Gaffney and southwest of Charlotte, N.C. The property is being cleared because Duke Energy is evaluating whether to build two new-generation Westinghouse nuclear reactors at that location.
The movie set was for the 1989 movie, “The Abyss.” Shortly after Duke executives walked away from the power plant project in 1983, writer-director James Cameron leased the site to film part of his underwater thriller about a sunken submarine, an underwater oil rig and a “non-terrestrial intelligence.”
Duke halted the earlier nuclear project early in its construction — when the first of three nuclear reactor units was about a third complete. In total, crews left behind more than 30 buildings. While most of them are steel-framed, several are massive concrete-and-steel structures designed, in the words of Cleveland Superintendent Kelly Arnold, “to have a 747 hit them and do no damage.”
“Demolishing the plant is a major undertaking,” Arnold said. “It was built to last a lifetime.”
A Duke Energy project manager for demolition, Timothy L. Baker, noted that removing the old power plant’s structures is the only heavy equipment activity at this stage. Construction of a new plant is an entirely separate stage and one that will be closely monitored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“All that is going on now is site remediation,” the 25-year Duke employee said. “There is no official site preparation whatsoever at this point.”
The reactor containment building is the largest of the structures now being taken down. Even unfinished, the round structure measures 220 ft. (66 m) in diameter and reaches a height of 128 ft. (39 m), with another 21 ft. (6.4 m) of reinforced concrete underground. Its walls vary in thickness from 4 to 5 ft. (1.2 to 1.5 cm).
And it isn’t all concrete.
“The amount of steel in this thing is amazing,” Arnold said of the containment facility, which in November was still being dismantled slowly. The containment building’s concrete walls have rebar up to 2 in. (5 cm) in diameter on 6-in. (15 cm) centers held together by Nelson stud attachments. The interior walls of the reactor were clad in stainless steel.
Other plant facilities include two cooling towers, two pump houses, a service building, a turbine building and numerous steel structures in various stages of completion. Some of the structures are coming down, some are not.
PSI and tensile strength clearly were uppermost in engineers’ minds when designing the facilities. Steel beams 2 in. (5 cm) thick were not uncommon. One of two cooling towers had walls 7 ft. (2 m) thick; the walls of the other were 6 ft. (1.8 m) from inside to outside.
“A lot of people came in and thought they would shoot it [use explosives to level the structures],” Arnold said. “But there is so much rebar in there that shooting it would just turn it black and leave it standing.”
The alternative to blasting is the tried-and-true methodology of mechanically breaking apart and ripping down the structures and pulverizing building components into manageable dimensions. As Arnold described it, the process is a slogging one.
“It’s slow,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s big, heavy, breaking work.”
To reach the tops of the tall structures and begin the process, Cleveland equipment operators build earthen ramps. Arnold estimated that 200,000 tons (180,000 t) of earth has been moved just to facilitate demolition.
Cleveland Wrecking mostly uses Link-Belt equipment for its earth and materials handling. On this project, the company has eight excavators. Two of them — a Link-Belt 800LC and the lone Caterpillar unit, a 245 model — are battering walls using Indeco and Atlas Copco hammers.
“We have some of the biggest hammers known to man,” Arnold quipped.
A Link-Belt 460 pulverizes the wall components. Link-Belt models 8000Q and 700LX also are on-site along with some smaller front-end loaders. The material is kept moving from the base of walls where it drops, with ground crews separating trash from steel and concrete components. The gleaned material is moved to a Granutech-Saturn “Grizzly” shredder where it is dimensioned for reuse, much of it reduced to 2 in. (5 cm).
Chunks as large as 21 in. (53 cm) are trucked in 35-ton (32 t) Terex off-road vehicles to two “big, beautiful” man-made lakes where the material is reused as riprap on reconstructed dams. During two decades of neglect, trees and undergrowth weakened the earthen dams on the 170-acre (68-ha) and 80-acre (32-ha) lakes. A regional site preparation company, Morgan Corp. of Spartanburg, S.C., is renovating the dams, including capping their surfaces with the concrete shards.
“Everything is being recycled,” Arnold noted, “everything from steel to concrete.”
How much steel are we talking about?
Here’s an example: Arnold said the steel insert for the reactor unit, which never was set in place, ranges in thickness from 12 to 18 in. (30 to 46 cm) and weighs approximately 700 tons (630 t). A Cleveland cutting crew using Victor torches is cutting the reactor liner into pieces, with each piece weighing no more than 1,500 lbs. (680 kg), the largest that smelters will accept.
Arnold believes the Cherokee plant demolition is the largest such current project on the East Coast — but he has worked bigger ones.
When the last piece of steel is smelted and chunk of concrete recycled, the crew on the Cherokee site will have handled 150,000 tons (135,000 t) of concrete and 15,000 tons (13,500 t) of steel. By comparison, Arnold — who has been in the demolition business for 19 years — worked on Cleveland Wrecking’s disassembly of a Boeing assembly plant in Long Beach, Calif. That job handled 430,000 tons (387,000 t) of concrete and 50,000 tons (45,000 t) of steel.
Arnold said at the end of November that the Cherokee plant facilities are about 45 percent demolished, with much of the acreage shorn of the monolithic structures that were scattered around it. To be spared are two huge adjacent warehouses containing “hundreds of thousands square feet” of useable space; the warehouses will be reroofed and reused, according to Baker.
And significant work remains below ground level.
“We still have tunnels to do,” Arnold said. There is, in fact, 2,600 ft. (789 m) of concrete service tunneling on the site, much of it 10 ft. (3 m) high and 12 ft. (3.6 m) wide. Another 3,000 ft. (914 m) of steel pipe 12 ft. (3.6 m) in diameter must be removed.
And under each of the larger structures is a reinforced concrete pad at least 13 ft. (3.9 m) deep resting on granite. Engineers are closely monitoring destruction of the walls surrounding these mats. If the thick flooring emerges unscathed and reusable for new construction, nuclear plant architects could incorporate it into the new plant’s plans.
“The mats still would have to undergo further testing and inspection,” Baker said. The Duke manager visits the demolition site at least once a week from his office in Charlotte. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) representatives are on-site regularly as well.
Duke Energy announced more than a year ago that it is planning to sink $4 to $6 billion into a new plant at this location. The company already operates three nuclear power plants. The new plant will feature two Westinghouse reactors producing more than 1,100 megawatts of electricity.
A formal license application is expected after the first of the year, at which point the licensing process begins. The NRC could review an application for up to 42 months before granting approval. Construction of the new plant could take another five years.
While demolition of the old plant must be contractually completed by July, Arnold believes the 26-person crew can finish by April if change orders do not interrupt the schedule.
Demolition is satisfying work, Arnold said.
“There always is something new. Buildings that seem exactly the same never are. The scrap part of the business is good. And it’s always nice to come in and know you are helping your country move forward, in this case clearing the way for a new nuclear power plant.”
He wryly suggested why the industry is a nice fit for him.
“I was always good at tearing up stuff and now a company will pay me to do it.”
Cleveland Wrecking Co., part of the URS Corporation, has been demolishing structures across the United States for 90 years. The company’s work ranges into auxiliary areas of lead and asbestos abatement, salvage recovery, nuclear decommissioning and decontamination. CEG