Should you ever find yourself driving from Boise to Pocatello – what, don’t you know Idaho’s the new Provence? – don’t take the freeway. Interstates 84 and 86 offer nothing uplifting, socially redeeming or even vaguely interesting beyond the inevitable Subway beckoning at most exits.
Go instead on Highway 20. A longer route, sure, and in some stretches so devoid of humanity that you’ll conjure post-apocalyptic visions. Eventually, and I’m talking hours, you’ll hit Craters of the Moon National Monument, a welcome geologic change in the landscape.
But that’s not why Highway 20 is a must-drive. Twenty miles farther east, you’ll reach a rare town, Arco, where two sites draw your attention: a scarred bluff, where generations of local high schoolers have carved their graduation years into the rock; and the city office bearing a neon sign proclaiming, “Arco, Idaho. First City in the World To Be Lit By Atomic Power.” Another 20 miles east of Arco, back into the unrelenting scrub-brush, snow-encrusted high prairie, is the real reason for the detour, and it also explains that boastful sign back in Arco.
You take a right on one of the few paved side roads and pull up to a blocky, beige brick building that typifies 1950s industrial architecture. A wooden sign lets you know you’re at the right place: “EBR-I: World’s First Nuclear Power Plant.” It’s also, not coincidentally, the site of the first nuclear power plant accident – though, I hasten to add, nothing even close to the scale of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. Really, it hardly melted down more than a grilled cheese sandwich or two inside the building.
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It doesn’t take a brilliant nuclear physicist to figure out why the Atomic Energy Committee chose this site back in 1950 for its first foray in harnessing nuclear power for peaceful purposes. This place is almost devoid of humanity, as well as much vegetation and habitat. So, if you were to make a few Homer Simpson-type blunders with this new technology, you wouldn’t be irradiating too much.
Because the site is so remote, docent-led tours are hit-and-miss. But a brochure-enhanced self-guided tour details how Dr. Walter Zinn, one of the Manhattan Project’s creators, and a crew of physicists, engineers and machinists built and operated EBR-I (stands for Experimental Breeder Reactor) in 1951, splitting atoms and harvesting plutonium to at first power four light bulbs in the building, then lit the town of Arco and then served as a prototype and for later, more-advanced breeder reactors before being unplugged for good in 1964.
Would you groan if I called this reactor-turned-museum illuminating?
Or, would you sneer and dismiss this place out of hand as a propaganda tool for those toying with our health and future for cheap power instead of embracing “clean” energy?
A woman I met just outside the front door, bearing the yellow-and-black “Caution: Fixed Contamination” sign, gave me a wary look as I tried to chat her up. Once Carole Trybus learned I was a Californian and a card-carrying media member, she seemed to peg me as one of those no-nukes guys.
She had just finished a museum tour, which was a little like a homecoming for her. She worked as an engineer at the successor to EBR-I, the aptly named EBR-II, built nearby, until 1998, and she returned for a look-see while vacation from Ohio. She says “most people do not know much about (nuclear power)” and thus “are very fearful of the risks,” but pointed out that the men (and workers were almost entirely male) who ventured out to Idaho prairie in the early ’50s were pioneers in the nuclear power industry.
“(The museum) is very historical and very important from both an engineering and historical perspective,” she said, as a howling wind made her words hard to discern. “These guys, they knew nothing when they started this whole thing, and they had to figure it out, and they did a good job, and they did it safely. I think that’s the message that people don’t realize.
“Those physicists in the ’20s and ’30s had all this theory, but when it comes to engineering, you’ve got to actually do it. These guys doing the pencil-pushing didn’t know how they were really going to do this. It was the engineers on-site that figured it out. It wasn’t easy.”
I mention that the prospect of physicists and engineers working by trial and error might be a little risky – I think I invoked Three Mile Island, too – but Trybus would have none of it.
“This was not BS engineering,” she said. “Go in and find out.”
I did as she said, if only to get out of the howling wind.
Inside, it looks exactly like any power plant is supposed to look, except a tad smaller. There were lots of steel-reinforced pipes and bloated bellies of turbines and wires and rods and dimly lit walkways festooned with yellow-and-black warning tape.
Before beginning walking the tour, I entered a makeshift “lobby” on the cement floor was set up with 1950s-era chairs and a coffee table with copies of the Life Magazine that featured EBR-I on its cover back in the day. Next to that was a video monitor encased in a faux wooden TV cabinet, which plays a glowing 26-minute documentary about the reactor’s electric life before fizzling out. Just as Trybus mentioned, the video extolled the valor of the workers. As a former administrative assistant, Wilma Magnum, said on tape, “Our local farmer boys were very ingenious in figuring out how to do things. … The boys from the East knew how things were supposed to work, but they didn’t know exactly how to make them work.”
The men with the big brains and big plans were back in Chicago, but the actual implementation, where the stakes were highest, took place in Idaho. A machinist, Earl J. Barrow, says on the video, “We had ordered three ion chambers out of Chicago central shops. They came in and not a one of them worked.” His boss then asked, “Can you make an ion chamber?” Barrow said, “What the heck is an ion chamber? I have no idea.
“I didn’t know an ion chamber from a hole in the wall,” he continued. “So he give me a drawing. He says, ‘How long will be take you to make ‘em?’ He says, ‘We need two.’ I made two of them in five days. And they both worked.”
Such anecdotes don’t exactly inspire full confidence in the endeavor, but the team got the plant up to full power by Dec. 20, 1951. A replica of those first four light bulbs is on display in the museum. Eventually, they experimented and lit up all of Arco and were enriching uranium-235 at a brisk pace. On the two levels of the power plant, the concrete-encased core of the reactor where fission took place looks as pristine as it did in ’51. The vault holding the stainless steel fuel rod gleams, and the cask housing the highly radioactive spent fuel rods, still are hermetically sealed. Or so I fervently hope.
What could possibly go wrong, right?
Nothing, until that day it did. A planned experiment to take the reactor to “critical” without coolant flow went awry and partially melted the reactor core. Some radioactive gas leaked and workers briefly vacated the building, but nothing so dramatic as a Jack Lemmon-Jane Fonda “China Syndrome” resulted.
Yet, as the rich baritone of the video’s narrator intoned, “(Zinn) had some criticism later in the year when the accident was revealed to the public.”
Perhaps that marked the end of our nuclear-age innocence. But people in these parts remain fond of EBR-I and its part in history. As Leonard Koch, an engineer, proclaimed in the documentary, “I believe EBR-I was the Kitty Hawk of the nuclear power industry.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis
EBR-I ATOMIC MUSEUM
Where: Highway 26/20, 20 miles east of Arco, Idaho
Hours: Summer and fall hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Information: (208) 526-0050; www.inl.gov/ebr