Little Bits of History

We Got the Power

Posted in History by patriciahysell on December 20, 2015
Light bulbs lit by nuclear power for the first time

Light bulbs lit by nuclear power for the first time

December 20, 1951: EBR-I works. About 18 miles away from Arco, Idaho, the experimental Breeder Reactor was built out in the desert. Designed by Walter Zinn’s team from the Argonne National Laboratory, construction began late in 1949. The initial stages of the building had the reactor plant called Chicago Pile 4 or CP-4 or sometimes Zinn’s Infernal Pile. It was part of the National Reactor Testing Station, now known as the Idaho National Laboratory. EBR-1 installation was done in early 1951 and it was the first reactor in Idaho. It began power operation on August 24 of that year. On this day, atomic energy was successfully harvested and the power was used to generate electricity – enough to light four 200-watt bulbs. It was a beginning. The first time electricity was produced from nuclear power.

The following day, the reactor was able to produce enough power to light the whole building. It was able to produce 200 kW of electricity out the 1.4 MW of heat generated. The design and purpose of ERB-I was not to produce electricity. It was built to validate nuclear physics theory in the hopes of producing true breeder reactors by 1953. Tests proved the theory correct. Experiments revealed it produced additional fuel during fission, just as was hypothetically predicted.

On November 29, 1955 while running a test on coolant flow, the EBR-I had a partial meltdown. The test was trying to find the cause of unexpected reactor responses when there were changes in the coolant flow. This, one assumes, was one of the unexpected responses. It was repaired and further experiments were carried out. Thermal expansion of the fuel rods and the plates supporting them was the cause of the unexpected response. While ERB-I was the first to produce usable electricity, it was only for in-house use. BORAX-III, a nearby power plant, was connected to external loads and was sufficient to power the entire city or Arco in 1955, the first time nuclear power was able to power a city.

ERB-I had many firsts- the first to produce electricity, the first to use plutonium to generate electricity, and many other useful experiments. Enrico Fermi’s breeding principle was proven. But the reactor was not built for more than experimentation and was decommissioned in 1964. It gained national landmark status on August 25, 1966 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and an IEEE Milestone in 2004. The site is open to the public and has been since 1976, but only during the summer months. You can visit between Memorial Day and Labor Day and see the two prototype reactors from the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Project of the 1950s as well.

Nuclear power is a young technology – there’s so much more to be discovered. That’s what makes it so exciting to me. Yes, there are problems, but innovative people are going to be able to come up with solutions and bring the technology to its full potential. – Leslie Dewan

Nuclear power plants must be prepared to withstand everything from earthquakes to tsunamis, from fires to floods to acts of terrorism. – Ban Ki-moon

Nuclear power is not a miracle key for the future. – Tarja Halonen

Nuclear power will help provide the electricity that our growing economy needs without increasing emissions. This is truly an environmentally responsible source of energy. – Michael Burgess

Also on this day: Secret Police – In 1917, Lenin formed the first of a series of secret police, used to terrorize the citizens of Mother Russia.
Cardiff, Wales – In 1955, Cardiff became the capital of Wales.
Petrol on Fire – In 1984, the Summit Tunnel fire began.
Just Wonderful – In 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life was released in New York City.
Flying Tigers – In 1941, the Flying Tigers first saw combat.


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