Click for larger image“I’m sorry, sir, we’ve had an incident,” the guard said as I pulled up to the reactor building.  “The site is closed.”

Even if I wasn’t an experienced nuclear operator, I know it is not a good sign when two fire engines, a disaster response bus and four armed vehicles are guarding a reactor facility - even a closed reactor facility.  Perhaps I’ll go see Craters of the Moon instead, I thought. (I also thought:  “Boy, I'd like a big ol' bus with red flashing lights...”)

Idaho Falls sits on the edge of the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, 890 square miles of empty space dotted with reactors and nuclear waste processing facilities.  At one time it was the largest collection of reactors in any one spot on the planet.  Sixteen years ago, I Click for larger imageearned my nuclear operator’s license here.  Forty two years ago it was the site of the world’s first deadly nuclear accident.  [See also Sister Betty’s site for all things radioactive:

Driving west from Idaho Falls I had four items on today’s agenda:  nuclear aircraft, the world’s first nuclear power planet, Arco, and the aforementioned deadly reactor.

First stop:  Deadly reactor.  There isn’t much left of the SL-1 reactor site, at least not that you can see.  A warning sign stands watch over the crumbling road that once lead to the reactor building.  Given our current Homeland Security convulsion, I decided against my intended covert crawl up the road for more photographs.

Click for larger imageSecond stop:  nuclear aircraft and the world’s first nuclear power plant.  I arrive in time for the aforementioned “incident” and am sent packing by armed guards.  I’ve lived through my share of nuclear accidents; I leave this one and head further west.

Third stop, a little earlier than planned:  Arco, Idaho (Population 1,064).  Arco was the first city in the world powered by atomic energy and the town hall proudly proclaims the heritage of this spot.  There isn’t much left in Arco – most of the atomic scientists live in Idaho Falls.  The corner motel features “unsafe for occupancy” signs and the sail from a nuclear submarine graces a park across the street. 

Click for larger imageFourth stop: Craters of the Moon National Monument - Lots of lava rock, interesting rock formations and creepy caves.  None of it photographs especially well.

Fifth stop:  Pickles Café back in Arco for an Atomic Burger.  All three waitresses insist on a private viewing of the MINI.  Just what a gay man needs:  a car that attracts chicks. 

Sixth stop:  I’m able to drive right up to EBR-1.  There is no one around, which means they’ve evacuated and left the gates open or the earlier incident at the INEL is over.  EBR-1 is the world’s first operational nuclear power plant and breeder reactor.  Decommissioned in 1964, it is now a National Historic Landmark.  What other national landmark offers you the Click for larger imageopportunity to stand on top of a reactor vessel, wander through radioactive material storage areas and peer through leaded glass windows? 

Sitting next to EBR-1 are two giant reactors designed to power nuclear aircraft.  Ho! Ho! Ho!  What a funny idea that is!  Not really – the Air Force was serious in pursing atomic powered aircraft in the 1940s and 1950s.  The project died only with the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missile technology and President Kennedy’s concern about reactors operating above cities.  This year the Air Force brought the idea out of retirement – this time considering mounting reactors in drone aircraft with a different reactor design. 

Click for larger imageLast stop:  Atomic City.  Just down the road from the INEL main gates is the tiny burg of Atomic City.  There isn’t much here.  The Post Office, bar and filling station are all in the same building – the only building with appears occupied (or inhabitable) in this hamlet.  I wander into the bar for a bottle of water and meet the three residents of Atomic City. Much to my surprise, the Atomic City Raceway, a failed tourist gimmick which sat unused for the better part of the last half century, is currently under renovation.  Maybe dirt bike racing will be the economic boost this town never had.

My last note for today:  Leaving Atomic City, I am struck by how much we miss in this world.  There are so many interesting, beautiful, intriguing, thought provoking and downright Click for larger imagecool places we miss as we zip by on freeways headed to corporate theme parks and regulated entertainment experiences.  I can’t remember the last movie I attended, but I’ll never forget Atomic City.

Tomorrow:  Yellowstone National Park…

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