Of the 10 historic landmarks in Idaho, Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 is easily the most unconventional tourist attraction. Located two miles off U.S. Highway 20, the aircraft hangar housing the world’s first nuclear power plant emerges from the largely empty landscape, looking suspiciously like it was never meant to be found. Inside, the EBR-I Atomic Museum waits to share its secrets.
EBR-I made history in December 1951, when scientists at the Idaho National Environmental Engineering Laboratory successfully generated usable electricity from atomic energy for the first time. Their triumph came just two years after the plant’s 1949 establishment by the Atomic Energy Commission, and three years before a Russian plant could replicate theirs on a commercially viable scale. There are actually four nuclear reactors on site, spread out over two acres of land.
Two of the four reactors are prototype nuclear aircraft engines, intended for a vehicle that would need to be “exceptionally large” to contain its massive power source. Classified construction plans mean that the exact specifications of such an aircraft are still under wraps, but engineers laid down a reinforced concrete floor that can withstand 2000 pounds per square foot—just to be safe.
Inside the museum, visitors have the choice to join an official guided tour or to undertake a self-guided stroll around the exhibits. Along the way, they can learn about the basic science underlying the atomic reactions then stand in the very control room that once directed the facility’s operations via an old-school system of switches and levers.
A particular curiosity in the control room is the SCRAM button, which would initiate an emergency shutdown of the reactor that sounds laughably inefficient today. The scientists needed a way to reliably drop a rod of cadmium into the reactor to absorb neutrons in case of a potentially disastrous nuclear reaction, but they lacked any automated system to do it for them. Instead, they dangled the cadmium above the reactor by a rope and assigned “a sturdy young male physicist [to stand] by the rope, holding an axe,” always at the ready in case he needed to swing the axe and avert a nuclear catastrophe. The brawny scientist in question was nicknamed the “Safety Control Rod Axe Man,” or SCRAM for short.
The famed nuclear reactor itself stands at the heart of the museum, where visitors can gaze upon the hole into which the uranium fuel rods were inserted, from behind the thick concrete walls constructed to spare workers from the radiation’s harsh effects. After solemnly considering the potential consequences of something going wrong around such powerful technology, visitors can then move on to a demonstration that almost makes radioactivity fun. Visitors have the opportunity to operate a giant mechanical claw, lifting and manipulating blocks from behind a protective glass wall, mimicking the actions of the 1950s and ‘60s workers tasked with inspecting and fixing radioactive items in what feels like an arcade game.
The latest addition to the Atomic Museum pays homage to EBR-II, EBR-I’s larger and “more capable” successor. For the nuclear skeptics in particular, the EBR-II exhibits highlight the positive developments of modern nuclear science: improved efficiency, the ability to recycle nuclear fuel, and the knowledge necessary to build a safer reactor. That’s not too bad for something located off a dusty highway.