In 1951 the light bulb and power plants were pretty ubiquitous. These four bulbs were probably bought for pennies each at the local hardware store. They could be installed in a lamp and plugged into a wall outlet. Electricity would flow into them by means of mysterious and, most probably, very malevolent forces. On the other end of all those wires would be a power plant serving a large area and tied into a grid of power generating stations across this great land. However, on December 20, 1951 these four bulbs were not powered by the commercial power plant feeding Arco, Idaho. Instead, they were being powered by something entirely new.
In general, technological advances occur in a time of war, and it’s only after their wartime purpose has been realized are more peaceful purposes found. For example, Percy Spencer’s reapplication of microwave radar technology developed in WW II to a kitchen appliance many households can’t live without. Another war time technology looking for a civilian application was the atomic bomb.
Now, an atomic bomb wouldn’t really be useful in a peacetime setting. In fact, it would be counter to human desire to live. However, the immense amount of energy released when said bomb is detonated could be harvested and used to power some light bulbs and even one of them newfangled microwave ovens. The problem is, a bomb is a one time use and cataclysmic device. Setting off nuclear bombs continuously would probably not be a good thing. What if we could somehow control the nuclear reaction? What if we could then boil water and turn a steam turbine which turns a generator which creates that black magic we call electricity and then lights four light bulbs and lets us blow up marshmallows?
What if Enrico Fermi is right, and in the correct circumstances this reaction could actually create more fuel than it consumes? This breeding could be used to create fuel for other reactors or, since we were in a cold war, nuclear weapons that could be aimed at our opponent. Sounds like a win-win.
That was exactly the purpose behind Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I). When it went online in 1951 and powered the four 200w light bulbs you see in the lede photo, it became the first nuclear power plant in the world. Over the next 13 years, it would be improved and would eventually power its own building. More importantly, it would also prove Fermi’s hypothesis. In November of 1955 it suffered a partial meltdown when engineers were trying to diagnose a problem with the cooling system. It was repaired and put back into service. It was decommissioned in 1964.
Today, visitors can go to the site of EBR-I and see where all this nuclear power plant stuff started.