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
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 earned
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: Radiationworks.com]
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.
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.
motel features “unsafe for occupancy” signs and the sail
from a nuclear submarine graces a park across the street.
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 opportunity
to stand on top of a reactor vessel, wander
through radioactive material storage areas and peer through leaded
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.
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,
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 cool
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…