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Idaho: Arco and Experimental Breeder Reactor #1 (EBR-1)

The eastern reaches of Idaho, north of Idaho Falls are pretty bleak and remote which makes it an ideal place to site dangerous things such as nuclear reactors. One of the great things about travelling is discovering new things that are new to you and I had no idea of the role Idaho has played in the development of the atomic power industry. Who would have known!

The 680-mile tract of land was first used by the Federal Government in World War II to test naval cannons and in 1949 when the government was looking for somewhere to build its first nuclear reactors this area was selected. The land now belongs to the U.S. Department of Energy, is commonly known as the Idaho National Laboratory site. In Idaho Falls, they simply call it “The Site.”

Some of the world’s most important advancements in nuclear energy has taken place here over the past 70 years. It is still the nation’s leading nuclear energy research laboratory, though its portfolio has diversified to include alternative energy and cybersecurity work.

It also has seen tragedy, including the only fatal nuclear accident in American history.

Experiment Breeder Reactor ERB-1

Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) is a decommissioned research reactor and U.S. National Historic Landmark. It was the world’s first breeder reactor. It was fired up on December 20, 1951, and became one of the world’s first electricity-generating nuclear power plants when it produced sufficient electricity to illuminate four 200-watt light bulbs. EBR-I subsequently generated sufficient electricity to power its building and continued to be used for experimental purposes until it was decommissioned in 1964.

Today ERB-1 is a museum and is open for visitors from late May until early September. Sadly, when we passed through the area it was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions so we had to be satisfied with a look at the building from the road.

Museum Location:U.S. Highway 20/26 between Idaho Falls and Arco
Map:Google Map
EBR1 Experimental Breeder Reactor, Arco, Idaho - museum closed due to Covid-19
EBR1 Experimental Breeder Reactor, Arco, Idaho - museum closed due to Covid-19

Arco – the World’s first nuclear-powered city

Arco, Idaho was the first town in North America to be powered by nuclear energy

In 1955, tiny Arco won fame as the world’s first nuclear-powered city. The town was named after a German scientist, Georg Van Arco, who specialised in radio transmission. Before then, it was named Root Hog for reasons unknown. 

On July 17, 1955, it became the first in the world to be powered solely through nuclear energy when the Borax-III reactor turned on at what is now the site of the Idaho National Laboratory. When the reactor powered up, conventional power, created by the Utah Power and Light Company, was slowly replaced by nuclear power. The test lasted about an hour until Arco’s electricity was fed from the Utah Power and Light Company again.

Arco’s city hall is very quaint and has a sign on its outside that proudly calls out the city’s place in history.

City Hall in Arco, Idaho - recognising its place in history

There are only about 1000 people who call Arco home. On the way into town from the National Laboratory, there is a small pocket park which has some unusual exhibits, the most prominent of which is the conning tower (which some refer to as a sail – it would not make a useful method to propel a submarine) of a decommissioned nuclear submarine USS Hawkbill. It is not the sort of thing you expect to find in what is to intents and purposes a desert. The Hawkbill is nicknamed the “Devil Boat” due to the number 666 which appears on the conning tower – this was actually her hull number and nothing to do with anything to do with occult worship – or was it! As well as the submarine tower there is a display of a torpedo. Of course, it makes a great photo opportunity! 

A nuclear submarine conning tower - an unusual find in Idaho

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