The Incredible Disappearing Nuclear Reactor

How do you make a 1150-ton nuclear reactor pressure vessel disappear?

In 1980, the heaviest load in state history crawled through East Tennessee toward the Phipps Bend nuclear plant, a TVA venture located near Surgoinsville. A nuclear reactor pressure vessel so large strengtheners had to be added to the roads and bridges to prevent crumbling and collapse.

The nuke plant never materialized, supposedly due to falling energy prices.

If you were old enough to remember the reactor coming to Hawkins County, chances are you still haven’t forgotten it. Power lines had to be raised up and roads were shut down for the reactor and its entourage. Person after person I’ve talked to vividly remembers the reactor arriving…but no one knows when it left.

Missing documents about Phipps Bend reactor

I sent a Freedom of Information Request to TVA to determine the fate of the reactor pressure vessel. After several weeks, the only document the FOIA officer was able to find was a letter from the Chattanooga TVA office to Chris Umberger of Dewberry and Davis. The letter first noted the original transfer of the reactor (and land surrounding it) from TVA to Phipps Bend Joint Venture; it then went on to indicate PBJV was going to sell the reactor to Dewberry and Davis for scrap.

1989 Letter: TVA Transfers Nuke Reactor Pressure Vessel to Dewberry and Davis

At the least, it is an interesting chain of ownership. The problem is, Dewberry and Davis is not a salvage company  (now known as Dewberry).  They are major players in the military industrial complex.  See “Wright receives President’s medal from the Society of American Military Engineers”

Mysterious buildings constructed near the reactor

Without any other documentation existing, it is hard to know precisely when Dewberry took possession of the reactor. But we do know that by April of 1990, Claude Cain, a member of the Industrial Board and contractor himself, had begun work on a spec building at Phipps Bend that comprised 50,000 square feet.

To “spec” means building something and speculating that someone looking for real estate will find it desirable and purchase it after it was built. In other words, there was no buyer, there was no interest, yet it was built anyway under the guise it would help attract businesses to the area.

Chris Umberger, of Dewberry and Davis, oversaw this Phipps Bend development project including the spec building built by Cain. Incidentally, Mr. Umberger later went on to work for Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon, Inc., a governmental engineering company based out of none of other than Oak Ridge, Tennessee. From

As the industry revives nuclear power generation options, we have provided critical studies in support of new nuclear reactor permitting. Barge Waggoner offers a wide array of planning, permitting, design, compliance, and remediation services for new energy facility startups and modifications to existing facilities engaged in coal-fired, hydroelectric, natural gas, solar, and nuclear power generation.

Eight months after the TVA letter was written, Dewberry and Davis secured approval from city council to spec a second 40,000 square foot building at Rogersville Industrial Park, a mere fifteen miles away. (See “Testerman put on school board”)

To sum up, Dewberry, a well-known military engineering company, ends up with possession of the nuclear reactor at Phipps Bend. Almost immediately construction of a massive building with seemingly no purpose begins. Then a few months later, Rogersville City Council approves Dewberry and Davis’ bid to build another massive spec building a few miles away, again, without a buyer.

Al Gore arrives to the Phipps Bend site

Interestingly, a few days before the city council voted their approval on the second mysterious building at Rogersville Industrial Park, Senator Al Gore came to town to hail the development of Phipps Bend. Coincidence? Gore was a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee as well as the Armed Services committee. One of the aspects of defense the Armed Services committee oversaw was nuclear energy and its role in national security. Did Senator Gore come to Hawkins County to look in on the progress of the nuclear reactor’s relocation?  Did Senator Gore come to town to meet with council members and persuade them to put the vote for Dewberry and Davis’ spec building through?  “Senator Gore says Phipps Bend park is a ‘great site’“, Rogersville Review, Thurs. Aug 16, 1990

I have called the actual Phipps Bend Industrial Park. I have called the Hawkins County Sheriff. I have posted messages on the internet asking members of the Hawkins County community to come forward with any information about the missing reactor. I have called the courthouse. I have called environmental health. Each time I have received the same response- no one knows what happened to the 2.3 million pound reactor pressure vessel.

Even Chris Umberger, the Dewberry and Davis project manager at Phipps Bend and the recipient of the TVA letter that indicates his company was to take possession of the reactor, claimed he did not know what happened to the reactor during an April 16th phone interview. (Telephone interview transcript available upon request.)

I submit the U.S. Government utilized the engineering firm of Dewberry and Davis to place the the reactor underground using the spec buildings in Phipps Bend and Rogersville Industrial Park as cover. Once underground, engineers were able use the massive caverns, underground river (it stretches almost the entire length of Cumberland Mountain), and possibly even old mines to move the reactor precisely where they wished. I believe, in the end, the reactor ended up 40 miles away, near Cumberland Gap National Park (but not within the Park itself.) I don’t know how they did it. Perhaps one building was used to modify the reactor to make it more easily transported to the second site. I’m unsure. I just know that reactor pressure vessel has vanished into thin air, leaving behind the biggest elephant in the room for the United States government in 99 years.

Update December 2015: a second reactor pressure vessel is missing from Phipps Bend- find the story here.

Nazi Germany, Vemork, and Cumberland Gap

Screenshot 2015-04-13 23.53.37What do the Nazis, a Norwegian hydroelectric plant, and the saltpeter caves of southwest Virginia (including Cudjo’s) have in common?

The ability to make heavy water.

Water contains hydrogen. Normally, the hydrogen in water contains no neutron in its makeup, just a proton. Heavy water, however, contains hydrogen that has the added “weight” of a neutron in addition to the proton, hence the name “heavy water.”

Deuterium is another name for heavy water.

During WWII, Allied forces learned of Nazi interest in a Norwegian hydroelectric plant that also produced fertilizer (specifically, calcium nitrate, or saltpeter). Heavy water, or deuterium, was a by-product.

To Norwegian Resistance fighters during World War II, heavy water was a mysterious substance considered so perilous that they were willing, under orders from the Special Operations Executive in London, to sacrifice the lives of their countrymen in order to keep it out of Nazi hands.  – (1) PBS, Nova, “Hitler’s Sunken Secret”

The Allies surmised the Nazis wanted the factory for its by-product of  deuterium, which is critical to creating weapons-grade plutonium-239.

I believe the United States knew of the potential of creating fertilizer with hydroelectric power when the national defense act of 1916 went into effect.

Col. J.W. Joyes…was instructed to inspect sites [for the location of the nitrogen/fertilizer plant] extending from Roanoke, VA., to certain Alabama sites…(2) 66th Congress, Second Session, War Expenditures Ordnance

The nitrate supply committee recommended this to the 66th Congress:

That the construction of the initial plant be started at once at some point to be selected by the War Department in southwest Virginia or adjoining territory in West Virginia reasonably near to the sulphur, sulphuric acid, and coal supplies of that region. (2)

The hydroelectric U.S. Nitrate plant was eventually built in Sheffield, Alabama with the help of a Norwegian named Berg. (I suspect it is the same Berg who would later be associated with the Vemork plant in his home country.)

Clearly the experts thought President Wilson was misguided when he chose the Alabama location:

Why the President selected the site at Sheffield Ala., for nitrate plant No. 1, contrary to all reports and recommendations, is not known. (2)

I think the President chose Sheffield Ala. to direct attention away from the southwest Virginia saltpeter caves and the real work of munitions production. He visited Lincoln Memorial University in 1918 under the guise of receiving an honorary law degree. (8) It’s certain the trip was actually a visit to the saltpeter/nitrogen operations in Cumberland Mountain, a few short miles away.

It is important to note that TVA was successful at large scale fertilizer production in the Alabama plants (see Dr. Jeremy Whitlock’s statement near the end of the blog post.)

Below describes the way limestone is used to help manufacture saltpeter:

[Nitric] acid can be neutralized with ammonia to form ammonium nitrate or with calcium hydrate to form calcium nitrate (Norwegian saltpeter).


 …we allow the acid to pass through open towers, filled with limestone, and afterward we destroy the small amount of remaining acid….  (3) Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, Vol. 24

According to the above journal, this process takes 15,000 tons of limestone, 500 tons of lime, and  2500 tons of soda to produce 29,000 tons of saltpeter.

The November 2001 issue of Virginia Minerals “Geology and History of Confederate Saltpeter Cave Operations in Western Virginia” states:

In the 1860s the southern war machine benefited immeasurably from the conditions of climate, vegetation and geology that gave it the greatest concentration of saltpeter cave deposits in North America. (4)

Luckily for the U.S. Government limestone was abundant in western Virginia as well:

Cumberland Mountain has an extensive limestone cave system on the Virginia side. – Sherpa Guides, “Highroad Guide to the Virginia Mountains” (5)

But the government struck a home run when they discovered a small college named Lincoln Memorial University already had a hydroelectric plant deep inside one of these limestone saltpeter caves: Cudjo’s Cave.

…an active stream runs inside the cave, and was harnessed for drinking water and hydroelectric power. – (6)

It is unknown if it is the same hydroelectric plant mentioned in the 1911 edition of Southern Electrician:

Plans are underway for the erection of a hydro-electric plant for the purpose of supplying power to manufacturers near Cumberland Gap. The plant will be located on the Cap creek.(9)

It is not known if “Cap” is a misspelling of “Gap”.

All three elements needed to produce deuterium are located right here in southwest Virginia: the naturally thriving saltpeter, a catalyst (limestone) that would replenish and produce even more, and the power of hydroelectricity.

I asked Dr. Jeremy Whitlock, a Canadian reactor physicist with decades of experience, how the massive amount of heavy water needed for pressurized heavy water nuclear reactors, or PHWRs, is produced today:

In the future if industrial-scale production is needed again (and I hope it is), we will likely use a catalyzed exchange process attached to an existing process based on electrolysis or hydrogen reformation (e.g. fertilizer production). (7)








7. Personal email, April 9 2015; copies available upon request