Four light bulbs shone a light on the 20th December nearly 71 years ago, marking the beginning of the atomic age. Four light bulbs that converted electric current into light, which the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) at the Idaho National Laboratory had produced. The first atomic electricity in world history, which was still a long way from a fear of atoms, Chernobyl and Fukushima that was cultivated like a blow-dried hairdo.
Standing in front of the EWC-I today, the modest building, which stands far away from all large human settlements between Butte City and Atomic City in southeastern Idaho, is astonishing. It's only a shed in a wind-swept plain with nothing all around it where mankind has tamed the atom. Other technologies were also implemented for the first time in this first and small civilian reactor. It was in operation until 1963 and is now a National Historic Landmark and open to visitors. But it seems like an agrotechnical plant not like a historical landmark.
EBR-I was just a research reactor, but it worked and really produced electricity. Decided by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947, construction began in 1949 on a new test site in Idaho. The next village nearby is called Arco, it has 2000 inhabitants and has an atomic altar right next to the road, which praises the beneficial effects of nuclear energy: Since the large-scale use of the atomic reactor there have been no energy crises, the locals here believing. And since the invention of the atomic bomb there have been no world wars. Many former employees of the EBR-I live in Arco, all other residents drive to work at the nearby test site of the Idaho National Laboratories, where the US forces used to test their cannons and where other secret experiments are now taking place.
Arco's attitude to the anti-nuclear protest is the antidode to all sceptizism. Where everywhere are reservations about nuclear energy, here is pride in nuclear technology.
Pride for things who are looking humble, not gigantic. Inside, the reactor building looks like a film set from "James Bond", high-tech from the 50s with buttons and switches from a time long gone. Four different reactor cores drove the EWC, the first one was made of highly enriched uranium, the second of uranium and zirconium, the third caused a partial meltdown in 1955 nearly a GAU. The fourth one nevertheless heated himself with plutonium anyway - for the second time the EWC-I was first in the world at that time.
From today's close-up view, the technology looks like the normal equipment of a car of the russian brand Wolga. Massive built, but not rusted, carefully painted, but extremely old-fashioned. Everything in the control room is controlled by knobs and rotating wheels, analogue displays remind us of the great days of "Buck Rogers" and "Doctor Who". Pictures from the days of real operations at the reactor here show men in white coats with cigarettes in their hands, importantly sitting at large tables. They casually look into the camera as if they knew exactly that it can only take a few minutes until the results of their experiments change the whole wide world.
They did. The EWC is a document of great visions and shattered dreams that has become a stone shell. Here, nuclear power became a material force, but it also became clear that its use will be more difficult than originally thought. Outside the door are two completely naked reactors, which were once thought by General Electric to be intermediate stages on the way to a mini-reactor with which the US Air Force wanted to power aircraft. Yes, they planned flying reators over your heads! If one had crashed it could have been Hiroshima. But they didn't think about great disasters first, they think about huge chances.
Inside the plant it is dark and warm, the two coolant circuits are not visible, nor is the liquid metal made of sodium and potassium that used to slosh around inside. But the way it works is understandable: The boiling core heated the water, a heat exchanger trapped it, a turbine then drove a generator. It's simple like a campfire.
There is nothing radioactive inside, at least no more than in Yellowstone National Park 200 miles away. The reactor is not to be torn down, rather it is a monument to a time when man not only aspired to the stars and flew to the moon, but was also determined to master the greatest dangers in order to subdue the earth. The historical light bulbs that still burn in the EWC are no longer the originals that indicated whether the atom was supplying electricity at the time, but replicas that are powered by electricity from the public grid. Of the originals, there is only one photo in blurred black and white. But on that one they shine forever.
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