EBR-1: World’s First Electricity-Generating Atomic Reactor


I guess you don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to know that if you’re going to experiment with something as dangerous as a nuclear reactor, you should first do it in a place like the Idaho desert.  I mean, if you screwed up and blew a 20 mile wide hole in the face of the earth, who’d miss it, right?  That must have been the idea behind placing the world’s first electricity-generating atomic reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1, in its lonely location, west of Idaho Falls.


The EBR-1 reactor is located along US 20.  You’ll find the turnoff to the reactor after US 20 and 26 merge, but before you reach ID Rtes. 22 & 33.  The closest thing to a nearby town is Arco, which proudly displays its nuclear heritage (as you’ll see on the next page).

My Visit

EBR-1 was the first reactor to produce more electricity than it used.  The monumental occasion occurred on December 20th, 1951, when four light bulbs flickered to life.

EBR-1 was:
…never meant to generate power commercially, only meant to prove that more nuclear fuel could be produced than consumed.
…the world’s first breeder reactor, and the first to use Plutonium.
…repaired after a partial meltdown in 1955.
…deactivated in 1964.

I thought it was funny to find the biggest, boldest warning sign on one building at the site advising of the danger of Hantavirus.  Hantavirus, of course, is a disease spread by rat droppings.  So to review: you’re out in the middle of the desert, standing next to the first breeder reactor to ever use plutonium to power a light bulb, and the biggest concern is rat poo?  Hmm.

EBR-1 is only open from 9-5, Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day Weekend.  It’s closed for the rest of the year.

Since I arrived after Labor Day, I couldn’t go for a tour of the reactor, so I wandered to the other side of the parking lot, where two Heat Transfer Experimental Reactors are on display every day of the year.

These two giant engines were built as part of the Heat Transfer Reactor Experiment (HTRE) in the mid-1950’s.  The idea was to build a nuclear-powered aircraft.  It was an idea, and a plane, that never got off the ground, for several reasons.  For one, the aircraft would have needed to be huge–so big it would need a 10-mile-long runway.  The plane’s crew would probably have received a massive dose of radiation, since shielding would have been too heavy.  And of course, it’s just not a great idea to have nuclear reactors flying around overhead.

The engines were successfully tested, and the 3rd prototype (made from lighter material) was theoretically proven to be capable of powering an aircraft for 30,000 miles.  But the risks of radiation outweighed any possible benefits.  After $1 Billion and 10 years of work, President John F. Kennedy canceled it in 1961.

There are two HTRE’s on display here. The one on the left in the above picture is HTRE-1, which was later reconfigured and renamed as HTRE-2.  The third version (HTRE-3) is on the right.

What I liked about the Heat Transfer Reactors, is that they look like some kind of machine from a cartoon, that a mad scientist would construct.  A fence surrounds both reactors, keeping you at a safe distance of about 2 feet.

This part of the Idaho desert is a great place to pick a free souvenir–a branch of sagebrush.  Look for the bushes growing all around the EBR-1 parking area.  Several different desert plants look similar, so just pinch off a leaf and smell it first.  You’ll know when you’ve found the right one.  If you’re lucky, you may even smell it in the air as you drive through the area.  This wikipedia article provides more info than you’ll ever need.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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