Atomic expedition

The Experimental Breeder Reactor I near Idaho Falls was declared a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1966. The Experimental Breeder Reactor I in 1951 became the first nuclear reactor in the world to generate electricity from atomic energy. (Associated Press)
The Experimental Breeder Reactor I near Idaho Falls was declared a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1966. The Experimental Breeder Reactor I in 1951 became the first nuclear reactor in the world to generate electricity from atomic energy. (Associated Press)

One of the first nuclear research labs in the U.S. still stirs interest from both the general public and scientific visitors from around the world

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – The Idaho National Laboratory, one of the nation’s first nuclear research labs, was built deep in a vast desert for a reason: Its founders wanted isolation as they experimented with the new technology of splitting atoms.

Sixty years later, civilization hasn’t crept much closer. The INL is a full hour from Idaho Falls, the nearest good-size town, and desert stretches in every direction.

The site is home to a National Historic Landmark called Experimental Breeder Reactor I or EBR-I, which in 1951 became the first nuclear reactor in the world to generate electricity from atomic energy.

The laboratory’s sophisticated nuclear research draws scientific visitors from all over the world, but the facility also offers a tour of the EBR-I reactor building to the general public.

The INL was established in 1949 as the National Reactor Testing Station on 890 square miles – about 85 percent the size of Rhode Island.

For many years, the site was home to the largest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world. Fifty-two reactors were built there, and the technology for the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine was developed there.

The INL is not a commercial power-producing facility; it is a research lab. Its mission includes research on biotechnology, energy and materials, as well as conservation and renewable energy.

An estimated 8,000 people work at, or near, the site, which is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and largely operated by the contractor Batelle Energy Alliance. Many of the physical structures look as they must have in the 1950s and 1960s, and the whole site has a Cold War feel.

Public tours are a way for the facility to balance the secrecy that goes along with military research with the publicity and education requirements of a publicly funded entity.

With informative video introductions to nuclear power and some skillful guides, INL does a good job of showing its unusual history and explaining, even to visitors with no scientific background, some of what goes on there.

Touring the EBR-I building’s Atomic Museum, the public can see three formerly functioning nuclear reactors, including two aircraft nuclear propulsion prototypes, and radiation detection equipment. Visitors can also try robotic arms used to handle radioactive materials.

A new three-room exhibit has just opened telling the story of EBR-I’s sibling reactor, EBR-II. It includes historic photos, renderings and data panels, as well as a re-creation of the reactor’s control room and audio and video clips of interviews with workers. The reactor operated for 30 years until 1994.

While you won’t get to see it on a regular tour of the museum, some specially scheduled tours for civic groups and others include a trip to the INL’s Materials and Fuels Complex, several miles away, with a stop at the hot cell, a 70- by 30-foot room with 4-foot-thick windows.

There, fuels and structural materials that come out of the test reactor are examined with robotic arms to protect scientists doing the work. The windows are made of six or seven layers of glass, with mineral oil between the layers to reduce distortion.

The yellowish windows reveal a scene like no other. The glass gives the room an underwater look. It’s strewn with ordinary-looking metal-cutting tools and workbenches, and visitors are awed to learn nobody has been inside since 1974.

One of the first questions is, “How do you hang light bulbs?” said tour guide Don Miley, who has been showing visitors around the INL for 18 years. “For us, it’s old hat.” (Remote handling devices – robotic arms – are used.)

The Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that was set up to promote nuclear power, encourages its members to educate the public with tours like the one offered by INL.

Nuclear plants clamped down on visits after the Sept. 11th attacks, but they’ve since established new security protocols and a few now offer tours, said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the NEI.

Visits to parts of the INL outside the museum are strictly controlled and are usually limited to groups. Non-U.S. citizens must apply weeks ahead of time for special permission to enter.

INL’s nearest town, Arco, bills itself as the first city ever to be lit by nuclear power, and has carved an identity out of its proximity to the site. It’s about 20 miles west of EBR-I.

Arco’s Idaho Science Center is open to visitors and staffed by retired INL engineers. At an outdoor display near the science center, visitors will find a 60-ton tower, known as a sail, from a decommissioned nuclear submarine.

Arco also has a two-day celebration called Atomic Days, this year scheduled for July 15 and 16, with a rodeo and other events.

Like the folks at INL, Arco’s Michelle Holt, whose grandfather and father worked at the site, wants more people to know about nuclear power.

“There’s just this cloak of mystery over nuclear energy,” she said.

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