Atomic Awesome

When Reactors Breed


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.

  • sawermassey

    So, once again STEAM power wins, minus the whole death and radioactivity stuff. hmm thanks for letting me down with a great story first.

    • With the exception of hydro, wind and photovoltaic generators, pretty much all power plants use steam. It's just the fuel that changes.

      • sawermassey

        I recall the number being in the 90% of all electricity involves steam driven turbines (wikipedia).

  • FЯeeMan

    I've taken the tour through there a couple of times. Pretty cool, a little scary, mostly pretty cool. Amazing how they used multiple layers of glass with oil between them as radiation insulation.

  • When we toured the facility a couple of years ago, the official story of the original four bulbs was that they were returned to the supplies closet after the test, back with all the others. Shortly thereafter, however, somewhat to the surprise of the people at the reactor, the Smithsonian wanted one, the White House wanted one, and so on. An FBI agent was dispatched to determine which bulbs were "the" bulbs based on fingerprints and other clues, after which the bulbs were distributed as required. One of the four remains on site in a display case.

    I have to wonder whether they didn't just grab the four closest bulbs from storage and call it good.

    • Then they'd be engineers, not scientists.

      What they ought to have done is power up all of the light bulbs in the candidate pool, and the first 4 to burn out would be the used ones. Bob's your uncle.

      • Bad idea. That plan would hasten the need to fill out paperwork for requisitioning more bulbs.