World’s First Nuclear Power Plant

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Spread over nearly 900 square miles in the high desert of eastern Idaho, lies the vast campus of the Idaho National Laboratory. Much of the campus is closed to the public, except a small part where you can see what remains today of the world’s first nuclear power plant.

The Idaho National Laboratory has been involved in nuclear research for close to seventy years now. Much of what we know today of nuclear reactors and how they behave and misbehave was discovered here. More than 50 nuclear reactors have been built on this site, including the world’s first electricity-generating nuclear power plant and the power plant for the world's first nuclear submarine.

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A mock setup of the four bulbs that lit up on the historic day. Photo credit: Kelly Michals/Flickr

The laboratory made history in the early afternoon of December 20, 1951, when a row of four 200-watt light bulbs lit up in a nondescript brick building. Electricity required to power them came from a generator connected to Experimental Breeder Reactor-I (EBR-I). This was the first time that a usable amount of electrical power had ever been generated from nuclear fission. Only days later, the reactor produced enough electricity to power the entire EBR complex.

The Experimental Breeder Reactor-I was originally built not to produce electricity but to demonstrate that breeder reactors are a physical possibility. A breeder reactor is a nuclear reactor that generates more fissile material than it consumes. It does so by allowing excess neutrons to be absorbed by a fertile isotope, which is transmuted to a fissile isotope. This fuel breeding principle was first suggested by Enrico Fermi. EBR-1’s purpose was to validate this theory. Not only did EBR-1 prove this principle, it also became the first reactor to produce electricity. The EBR-I is also the world’s first nuclear reactor to suffer a partial meltdown, when it did on November 29, 1955.

EBR-I continued operating until 1964 when it was decommissioned and replaced by its successor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor II. The very next year, EBR-1 was declared a National Historic Landmark.

At the Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 Atomic Museum today, located on U.S. Highway 20/26 between Idaho Falls and Arco, you can see not one but four nuclear reactors, including two aircraft nuclear propulsion prototypes, a reactor control room, remote handling devices for radioactive materials, radiation detection equipment, and much more. The museum remains open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

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Part of the core after the 1955 partial meltdown.

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The first production of usable nuclear electricity in Idaho National Laboratory occurred when four light bulbs were lit with electricity generated from the EBR-1 reactor.

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HTRE-1 and HTRE-3, two nuclear powered jet engine prototypes in the open air, in front of the EBR-1 visitor center. Photo credit: Kelly Michals/Flickr

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Photo credit: Kelly Michals/Flickr

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