Idaho: EBR-1 -- Experimental Breeder Reactor 1

The EBR site is in what is now the INEEL area (Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory), "and Environmental" added in 1997 to bring them up into the 80's. (Their monthly newsletter keeps me up on such things.) EBR is about 60 miles W. of Idaho Falls, off Route 20, the same geographical neighborhood as the Hanford (WA) plutonium processing site; Hanford is, in my opinion, currently a disaster on the scale of Chernobyl, but in slow motion, and too confusing, detailed, and slow-moving for the 6 o'clock news. But I digress.

The sign to the EBR site is right on Route 20, south of Butte City, one of two claimants to 'the first town in the US powered with nuclear-generated electricity', from EBR. Outside the EBR building you can gawk at the two atomic aircraft engines; one was a developmental, non-flying proof-of-concept prototype, and there was an allegedly flyable prototype, (that's Josh in the foreground). The whole project seems an obvious crock, even without the benefit of hindsight -- the claimed design life of this gargantuan aircraft was 30,000 miles, during which the pilots got a nasty dose of gamma, since "adequate" shielding is simply too heavy, after which the craft would be scrapped due to contamination. The remote location for the atomic aircraft was only partly due to secrecy, the remaining reason was the the difficulty of placing the necessary 10-mile-long runway (this is one heavy bird), and the particular mess an augur-in landing would make. Atomic aircraft, a classic example of boy-with-hammer syndrome, runaway budgets and excess secrecy, were done in by in-flight fueling, ICBMs, inherent stupidity of design, literally before they got off the ground. The EBR brochure mentions the two atomic motors only briefly in the very last sentence of the back page, not being exactly a source of pride, I suppose, but too large to ignore. (The aircraft concept was the subject of a June 1956 Newsweek article. I have only the cover photo, alas.)

The EBR itself  can be seen in a guided tour, ours provided by high-school cheerleader girls (really), who were very chatty but not particularly knowledgeable about the reactor, and as is usual for tour-guides had utterly no sense of irony. The reactor itself is quite small, and well documented; it's swimming pool, waldoes, control room, etc were used for a lot of documentary and sci-fi footage. I didn't take too many pictures here; if you've seen one old research reactor, you've seen 'em all. I did take one picture of questionable taste, me, ready to pull the SCRAM switch dangling from the ceiling. My survey meter showed only slightly elevated gamma (about twice background). (The fenced-off motors are still somewhat hot, apparently, from the signage.)

A lot of money, technology and outsiders swelled the area in the late 40's; other than the INEEL, it's mostly gone. Some tried to cash in quick, success is a fickle thing, no? The town of Atomic City today is a small cluster of a dozen buildings, about as many residents, on an unpaved loop off Route 20. The center of activity is the gas station/post office/bar/store/cafe/residence shown above. There was a motorcycle race track called the Atomic Raceway, now obviously defunct.

 Is there an EBR-2?