Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 (EBR-I) Atomic Museum – Arco, Idaho

June 2015

On the way to Craters of the Moon National Monument, we stopped by EBR-I, the Experimental Breeder Reactor Number 1. Gotta keep up with my tradition of visiting nuke sites, right?

Located on the grounds of the Idaho National Laboratory, EBR-I was the world’s first electricity-generating nuclear power plant when it cranked out a minuscule amount of power at the end of 1951.

While EBR-I was on the way to our next destination, it was a stop we almost didn’t make. Kathy wasn’t so keen on the idea of visiting the place. She was downright resistant as she had zero interest in nuclear energy. As a matter of fact, she was firmly against this form of power generation pre-visit, so she had no interest in visiting the museum. However, as in all good relationships, she agreed to go as it was something I wanted to see. One of the many reasons why she is a great fit for me.

She ended up doing a 180 after learning about how safe nuclear power can be (if done right – which the US doesn’t do, despite developing the technology) and after learning that the Idaho National Labs has 890 square miles of mostly untouched land, and it will remain that way. She likes the unspoiled land. Love her for this!

As it turns out, I think Kathy enjoyed the tour more than I. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

To save me the trouble, you can read all about EBR-I in Wikipedia here and on the Idaho National Laboratory website here (make sure you click on the PDF links and watch the videos at the National Labs website). There, now that you know as much about EBR-I as I do, if not more, let’s get on with it, shall we?

We arrived at EBR-I mid-morning after driving through part of the Idaho National Labs via Idaho Highway 20. All along the highway, while inside the laboratory grounds, were yellow signs set back about 20 yards or so from the road. While they were too small to read while driving, I imagine they said something like, “If you proceed past this sign, you WILL be shot.” I do have an active imagination, don’t I? 🙂

There is a self-guided tour that we had every intention of taking, until we were informed by one of the cheerful docents that a tour was just starting. Count us in, as long as it means we don’t have to read the self-guided brochure, right?

Kathy amazed me right at the start when she was the only one of our group that said yes when the tour guide asked if we wanted an explanation of some nuclear reaction, or something really technical like that. You know, the kind of stuff that made you eyes glaze over in school. Kathy wanted to learn about that. Right on! And she continued to ask intelligent questions throughout the tour. Hmm, not bad for someone who didn’t want to go in the first place. Just saying.

EBR-I was a success and was shut down in 1964 and replaced by EBR-II (yes, the government does come up with original names, doesn’t it?). EBR-II was a resounding success and proved a few very important points:

  • EBR-II was a reactor design that actually consumed radioactive waste. This could/would greatly reduce nuclear waste and all but eliminate the problem of storing said waste.
  • Through its passive safety design features, it was physically impossible for EBR-II to suffer the same fate of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. In other words, it was an inherently safe form of nuclear power. Yes, such a thing actually exists.

EBR-II was operational for three decades, providing the majority of power for the laboratory facilities, and was finally shut down in 1994. Unfortunately just a few weeks after tests with EBR-II proved that it was able to shut itself down after a catastrophic failure of its cooling system, with no meltdown or other significant event, Chernobyl happened. This was just seven years after Three Mile Island, and the two events scared the crap out of the American public when it came to nuclear power. Combined with US nuclear power’s inability to run a public relations program touting its benefits and safety (when using the right type of reactor), the American Public never became convinced that nuclear power could be a good thing. Thus we have the current state of the industry.

The technology that was created at the Idaho National Laboratories, including EBR-II technology, isn’t used in America, but is used in other countries. Nice to see our tax dollar benefiting other countries while ours is too damn scared to use safe technology. A true shame. But lets hear it for coal fired power plants and hydroelectric dams, both of which have zero environmental impact, right? OK, I will get off my soapbox now.

I came away from the tour with a solid appreciation of how nuclear power plants, done right, can provide the power that we need. Kathy came away with the same appreciation, but she had a more drastic change of heart as she was much more opposed to them going in. Glad we made that stop after all!

2 thoughts on “Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 (EBR-I) Atomic Museum – Arco, Idaho

  1. Surprisingly, I enjoyed this stop much more than I thought I would as well after Jase made plans to stop by. Disappointing however that the US isn’t using this technology!

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    • Hey Lauri! That’s great that you liked EBR-1. Total disappointment that the U.S. isn’t using this technology. Doesn’t surprise me considering how backwards we are in certain things, but it still is incredibly frustrating.

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