Gone Fission

Story and Photography by Jeannette Boner

You guys building bombs out here?” I joked, as my tour guide regaled the extensive history of atomic energy and Idaho’s role on the nuclear global stage. I received a pretty serious “No,” before we returned to talking about the Idaho National Laboratory, or INL, one of three facilities of its kind in the U.S. run by the Department of Energy. This was important business for these scientists, and so, like a neophyte climber following an Exum guide up the Grand Teton, I kept my gaze steady on the horizon and checked the battery life on my phone—you know, just in case of an emergency.

Backing up, I have to admit that visiting a dormant nuclear reactor in the middle of Idaho’s Arco Desert didn’t rank high on my list of “must do’s.” Or even low on it.

But there I was, heading into the great unknown like a split atom screaming west past Arco (the first city in the country to be lit by atomic power) and through ancient lava flows swelling up around us as we dipped and turned over the Snake River Plain toward Idaho’s hidden secrets of nuclear fission.

The day’s excitement began bubbling up in the van. “It’s like going to Mecca,” said Don Miley, director of the Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 (EBR-I) Atomic Museum. Don oversees the guided-tours program for INL. I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but his obvious passion for the journey was contagious as we drove deeper into this remote part of the world.

And there it was, like a modern-day mirage of technology, rising out of the sagebrush and above the seemingly endless ribbon of road wrapping past thousands of years of history and prehistory: Native Americans, early trappers, pioneers, Mormon settlers, and now the INL and its nearly 10,000 visitors every summer.

INL straddles five Idaho counties in the heart of the Snake River Plain. Where we were headed, EBR-I, is the historic stage for the study and development of U.S. nuclear energy production—and, let’s be honest, probably part of the inspiration for half of the horror films produced in the 1950s.

We pulled into the parking lot of EBR-I and, sure enough, it looked to me like it could pass as the set for an episode of The Twilight Zone. The enormous heat transfer reactors sitting just off of the parking lot were enough to make me wonder: “What the … Would I emerge a star of my own imaginary horror film, or a one-woman case study after growing a strange beard and third eye?”

To my surprise, quite a few cars and three RVs draped in kayaks and mountain bikes sat in the parking lot next to the unassuming yellow brick building, which appeared to be holding steady against the harsh desert climate. Most fascinating to me was learning that the interns—who spend their summers touring and guiding thousands of visitors from around the world through EBR-I—are actually positioned outside of the building to greet people in cars and vans as they pull up.

“Why?” I asked.

Because—and this is both very cool and so unbelievable all at once—so many people, upon seeing EBR-I, don’t want to enter the retired nuclear facility. Oh my God—I was going to grow a third eye after my tour! Was the place full of mad scientists, mummified and haunting the concrete halls? Would the Incredible Shrinking Woman greet me at the concession stand? (Please say yes.)

Instead, it was Jennifer Hernandez, an Idaho State University anthropology student, who was working as an intern at EBR-I. She shook my hand as we started toward the facility and, with a warm smile and just two bright eyes, said, “Visitors leave here with less fear and more understanding of nuclear energy.”

Jennifer was clearly bummed that she had “lost” a car full of live ones to nuclear trepidation just as I had pulled in—not the best first impression a journalist could receive, but we both soldiered on. “We’re usually successful in convincing people to get out of their cars and take the tour,” she continued. “It’s so important to be able to share the scope of what we do at INL and learn from history. That’s what I love about museums—we can touch history and not just read about it.”

Nuclear Knowledge

More than a quarter of a million visitors from every state and dozens of foreign countries have come through EBR-I’s door since it opened for summer tours in 1975. At the very least, it’s an incredible pit stop on the way to or from Craters of the Moon National Monument that explores Idaho’s historic contributions going well beyond potatoes and pristine wilderness. Public tours of the facility begin Memorial Day weekend. Located on the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory off U.S. Highway 20, the museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week through the Labor Day weekend. Visitors can either tour the facility on their own or take a guided tour. Admission is free. Over in the Office Annex there’s also an exhibit shining the spotlight on the achievements of EBR-II, the successor of EBR-I that operated from 1964 until 1994. To get a more complete idea of what all there is to see on a visit—or in lieu of a visit—go to inl.gov/ebr and download the EBR-I Atomic Museum self-guided tour brochure. It highlights the fifteen points of interest/information included on a guided tour of the facility.

And, historically speaking, this was the birthplace of modern nuclear energy technology. EBR-I, completed in 1951, produced the world’s first usable quantity of electricity from nuclear power on December 20 of that year. As I walked through the front doors I couldn’t help but think of the men, and the handful of women, who had duked it out here in the middle of southeast Idaho, a spot lost somewhere in the desert between the Tetons and, yes, the Lost River Range, pioneering an unknown science that would lead to incredible discovery, modern-day triumphs, and, of course, all of the more troublesome history that was a byproduct of their discovery.

Operational until late in 1963, EBR-I was decommissioned in 1964. It was a pretty big day when INL was dedicated as a Registered National Historic Landmark by President Lyndon Johnson and Glenn Seaborg, then-chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, on August 25, 1966.

The tour itself was unlike any museum tour I’ve ever taken, a hands-on showcasing of actual pieces of equipment that once produced nuclear energy. It’s stripped of anything polished or glamorous (or radioactive), and one cannot help but be impressed by the importance of what happened here more than six decades ago—while contemplating the service and dedication it took from pioneering scientists to squeeze energy from the unseen. There is a reason why EBR-I is included in John Graham-Cumming’s book The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive.

The tour lasted about forty-five minutes and took me through three levels of the building, each staircase winding me tighter around EBR-I’s past and its place in the scientific world. I saw the first light bulb ever to be lit by plutonium and the Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor (near and dear to this Pittsburgh girl’s heart—it’s the reactor that melted down just after I was born and was part of every Pennsylvania history lesson I received until high school graduation). I toured the reactor control room and was not discouraged from turning all the dials and spinning the knobs on the control panels. And there were more hands-on experiences, such as navigating remote-handling devices that were once used to move radioactive material, and now seem more like antique video games.

And did you know that the entire EBR-I facility is run on nuclear power?—of course!