We were driving across Idaho heading towards Seattle when we saw signs for the EBR-I, Worlds First Nuclear Power Plant. So of course, we turned onto the lonely road in this vast expanse of near desert land that is surrounded by mountains. It looked like a perfect place to put a nuclear power plant – a long ways away from anything.
The EBR-I was the first nuclear power plant that was built as a test site to attempt to grow plutonium – a breeder reactor. The plant confirmed the theory that it was possible to produce more fuel than it used. As you might expect at an experimental lab there were many innovations developed at EBR-I regarding nuclear power.
One of the more interesting things to see was a viewing room with mechanical arms so the scientists could “touch” the radioactive rods, parts, and such. At first glance, you don’t have any idea how thick the walls are, you are looking through perfectly clear glass. As it was explained to us, the windows we were looking through were 39” thick made up of over 30 one-inch panes of glass. To keep the glass from being reflective and obscuring the view of the inside of the room, an optical grade mineral oil was placed between each pane. When the guide shined a light through the glass, it acted like a prism, separating each color on one of the glass panes. It was cool!
This plant began operation in 1951, and soon was producing enough electricity to power its own needs and those of the closest town, Arco, ID. The first nuclear powered submarine’s reactors nuclear rod placement design was determined there.
The City of Arco, ID, is very small but there is an interesting park that further explains the relationship of Arco to the submariner’s world. One unique feature of Arco is the Number Hill. The hill overlooks the city and there are numbers painted all over the hill. It is a tradition that started in 1920, when the graduating high school seniors wanted to show their school spirit (and leave their mark on the town). They climbed up the hill and painted “20” on it. Since then every graduating class has painted their number on it.
We spent the night at the Craters on the Moon park near Arco. When the park was first established it was thought that the surface of the moon would be like this volcanic field, hence the name. Astronauts came here for training on how to move about the rocky surface, with expectations of using this experience on the moon. We now know the moon is not covered in volcanoes or long expanses of cooled lava flows, but the name of the park remains.
In addition to a very good visitor center, there is a 7-mile driving tour of the park. There are many turnouts and trails along the drive. There is some vegetation and animals that live here but not much. In its own harsh way, there is beauty to be found here.
It is hot during the summertime. Lava is black, camping sites, and sidewalks are black. The experience during the day is like visiting a very interesting mall parking lot with huge hills and wonderful vistas during the heat of a 95-degree day. Camping here is much the same until around 2:00 in the morning when it cools into the 60’s.