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History

Idaho experiment that showed nuclear power was more than a weapon turns 70 years old

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Idaho National Laboratory
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Nuclear physicists Walter Zinn (right) and Harold Lichtenberger (left) in front of the lightbulbs they lit up with nuclear energy for the first time with EBR-1.

The nation’s nuclear power industry was born here in the Mountain West, and Monday marks the 70th anniversary of a facility producing enough power to light up four light bulbs – and showing that nuclear power could be used for more than just weapons.

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Madelyn Beck/Mountain West News Bureau
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Eastern Idaho is home to the EBR-1 facility because researchers felt it was far enough away from urban centers (in case something went wrong) and it was a large area that had already been used by the Navy for testing battleship guns. The Navy is often cited as the reason that we pursued the kind of nuclear reactors we see today. That is, this kind of nuclear energy worked well on naval vessels.

Now, as the nation explores new kinds of nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions, Mountain West News Bureau reporter Madelyn Beck visited EBR-1 (or Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1) in Idaho, about 160 miles from Yellowstone National Park.
She walked from room to room with Idaho National Labs’ Ryan Weeks, who spoke about the plant’s history.


Photos from the Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1:

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Madelyn Beck/Mountain West News Bureau
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Inside the building that houses the EBR-1 museum.
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Madelyn Beck/Mountain West News Bureau
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The concrete "hot cell" at the EBR-1 facility has 33 panes of leaded glass measuring at about 3.5 feet thick. People on the outside could use mechanical arms to examine spent nuclear fuel rods on the inside. Here, Ryan Weeks demonstrates how light in each pane catches on his phone's flashlight. Mineral oils that make the glass clear are gradually draining from the panes, resulting in the opaque portion at the top.
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Madelyn Beck/Mountain West News Bureau
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The control room at the EBR-1 facility isn't functional anymore and, before COVID-19, high school groups could come through and push the buttons and pull the levers.
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You're looking down into the vessel that would have contained EBR-1's nuclear reactor.


This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

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