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.

Nuclear Power

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 27, 2014
Calder Hall

Calder Hall

August 27, 1956: Calder Hall nuclear power station is connected to the grid. It was part of the Sellafield reprocessing site near to Seascale on the coast of the Irish Sea in Cumbria, England. Windscale and this first-to-the-grid-reactor are both undergoing decommissioning and dismantling at the present time. It was first owned and operated by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and after 1971 by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Since 2005, it has been owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and operated by Sellafield Ltd. Calder Hall was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on October 17, 1956 and was the world’s first power station to generate electricity on an industrial scale.

The plant was both a commercial and military facility. Building began in 1953 and included four Magnox reactors which were each capable of generating 60 MWe of power. This was reduced to 50 MWe in 1973. The four cooling towers were built between 1950 and 1956 and were used to cool water from the station. They were each 290 feet tall and stood for fifty years creating a visible landmark as seen from Seascale. When the power plant closed, there was debate over whether or not to preserve the towers, but it proved to be cost ineffective. They were brought down by controlled implosions on September 29, 2007 and the next twelve weeks were spent romoving the asbestos from the rubble.

Nuclear power or energy includes fission, decay, and fusion but today, fission is the only method capable of generating electricity in quantities worthwhile. Excluding nuclear power contributed by naval reactors, nuclear energy supplies about 5.7% of the world’s power and 13% of the world electricity. In 2013, the IAEA reported there were 437 operational nuclear power reactors in 31 countries. Not all of them producing electricity. There are approximately another 140 naval vessels using nuclear propulsion powered by about 180 reactors. The hope for nuclear fusion power has remained strong, but it is unlikely that fusion will be commercially successful before 2050.

Three famous nuclear plant disasters have taken place. In 1979 the Three Mile Island plant in the US failed. In 1986, the USSR had the Chernobyl disaster. In 2011, following an earthquake/tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan caught the world’s attention. These disasters have been widely studied. However, there are more deaths from coal, petroleum, natural gas, and hydropower (per unit of energy generated) due to both air pollution and energy accidents. The US has the greatest amount of nuclear energy produced from the 104 operational reactors within her borders. France is second both in capacity and the number of operational reactors. Japan is third in capacity, but Russia is third in number of reactors with 33 operating. The UK has 16 reactors still operating.

For 50 years, nuclear power stations have produced three products which only a lunatic could want: bomb-explosive plutonium, lethal radioactive waste and electricity so dear it has to be heavily subsidised. They leave to future generations the task, and most of the cost, of making safe sites that have been polluted half-way to eternity. – James Buchan

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

No one in the United States has become seriously ill or has died because of any kind of accident at a civilian nuclear power plant. – Joe Barton

The idea that the growing demand for energy worldwide can be met with energy from nuclear power is nonsense. – Sigmar Gabriel

Also on this day: Powerful Industry – In 1859, the modern day oil industry starts.
War is Hell – In 1896, the shortest war in history was fought.
Kǒng Qiū – In 551 BC, Confucius is born.
Sculptor – In 1498, Michelangelo was commissioned to create the Pieta.


Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 26, 2010


April 26, 1986: The nuclear reactor #4 at Chernobyl suffers a steam explosion. Chernobyl is in the Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered the only level 7 instance on the International Nuclear Event Scale. This scale was inspired by the Richter Scale and has seven different levels of “events.” Level 0 is a deviation without any safety issues involved. Levels 1-3 are minor “incidents” and from 4-7, the consequences of what is now termed an “accident” reach to the local community or farther. Level 7 is classified as a Major Accident.

As with most disasters, there was not just one simple cause. There were many and they were interrelated. 1) There was a lack of a “Safety Culture” that allowed for design weaknesses. 2) There were overall faults with high-powered channel reactor type – the RBMK or reactor bolshoy mashchnosty kanalny. 3) There was a violation of procedure. Only 6-8 control rods were used when there should have been a minimum of 30 rods and the emergency cooling system was disabled. And 4) There was a communication breakdown with critical information not being passed on correctly.

The fallout from the accident has been long-term and expensive. Thyroid cancers have the greatest increase with a pre-accident rate in 1981-1985 of 5 cases per million people raised to 45 per million during the years 1986-1997. Other cancers have gained prominence as well. At the time of the disaster, 116,000 people were evacuated with 210,000 more relocated during the years 1990-1995. An estimated cost of $12.8 billion due to the disruption of the Soviet Economy is cited.

Power shortages remained throughout the area. So while new construction of reactors #5 and #6 were eventually halted, reactor #1-3 continued to be used. There was a fire in reactor #2 in 1991 which resulted in its shutdown. Reactor #1 was decommissioned in 1996 and on December 15, 2000, Reactor #3 was turned off. The site today hold memorials to the people who were killed or affected by the disaster. There is a “Sarcophagus” over the damaged reactor, but there continues to be issues due to possible further collapse of the protective barrier.

“We are the authors of our own disasters.” – Latin Proverb

“And Lord, we are especially thankful for nuclear power, the cleanest, safest energy source there is. Except for solar, which is just a pipe dream.” – Homer Simpson

“The discovery of nuclear reactions need not bring about the destruction of mankind any more than the discovery of matches.” – Albert Einstein

“What might be considered one of the few positive aspects of ‘Chernobyl’s legacy’ is today’s global safety regime.” – Mohamed ElBaradei

Also on this day, in 1865 John Wilkes Booth was killed in  Virginia.