Are You Telling Me That This Sucker’s Nuclear? Adventures in Atomic Tourism
2012 Column Contest Winner
Anne Wheeler used to live in the Pacific Northwest and have purple hair and piercings, but now works for “The Man” at a white-shoe law firm in the South. To balance this assault on her soul, and free the ‘90s Goth girl within, she spends her free time working as a cemetery tour guide and exploring the vestiges of the Atomic Era.
Here Lies EBR-I, Peperony and Chease.
BY ANNE WHEELER
During Christmas Break, I finagled my way into a tag-along visit with a group of elementary school kids to the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) in the middle of the Idaho dessert. EBR-I, as you may remember from this post, was the first nuclear power plant, initially fired-up December 20, 1951, which is even before the Back in Back to the Future.
EBR-I sits about halfway across the state from my parents’ house in Southwestern Idaho. There are several notable things to see during the nearly five hour drive, but I couldn’t tell you about them because all the State of Idaho wanted me to learn about was Goodale’s Cutoff. Goodale’s Cutoff is a more northerly route of the Oregon trail. Where the main trail hugs the Snake River, Goodale’s cutoff skirts the northern edge of Craters of the Moon a couple hundred miles to the north. The Cutoff is also the current route of Highway 20/26/93, which is essentially the only road in that part of Idaho, about which the National Park Service, cheerily notes: “Today those driving US-20, which follows sections of the route, need not concern themselves with survival and can take time to appreciate the unique beauty of the harsh landscape.” One would hope that in 2013 America there is no need to concern oneself with survival on most all of our roads.
Goodale’s Cutoff is approximately 230 miles in length and the State of Idaho has decided that visitors need to be reminded with a historical marker that they are in fact traveling The Cutoff, oh, once every five miles. And these aren’t the little highway sign sized historical markers; these are the 4 foot by 8 foot suckers that mark such other interesting locations as: “First Public Building,” “Railroad Trestles,” and “Railroad Tunnels,” throughout the state. So I guess taken in that light, maybe an alternate route of the Oregon Trail is kind of interesting. Of course the state is going to pimp it for all it’s worth.
As alluded to by the park service above, this part of the state is pretty desolate. Here’s a great quote from an Oregon Trailian (Trailite?) about the landscape:
“It was a desolate, dismal scenery. Up or down the valley as far as the eye could reach, or across the mountains and into the dim distance the same unvarying mass of black rock. Not a shrub, bird nor insect seemed to live near it. Great must have been the relief of the volcano, powerful the emetic, that poured such a mass of black vomit.”
— Julius Caesar Merrill1 , a pioneer traveling Goodale’s Cutoff in 1864
Black Vomit. I guess there’s not really a better place to do atomic testing. Because if there’s an accident, will stuff really look different? I mean the rocks are already melted.
While we were rolling along Goodale’s Cutoff in my mom’s sweet Impala (yes, I dragged her along with me) the speedometer went out, and we had to download an iPhone app to watch our speed because we are not rebels who drive fast and furious ala Thelma and Louise through the Idaho desert. However, the app did not seem to be working, but we thought it through and realized that it was really just displaying our speed in kilometers (we’re not Canadians, iPhone). We made it to EBR-I without speeding and our brains were so filled with information about Goodale’s Cutoff, that we will never, ever lose at Oregon Trail again.2 (Tip: Spend all of your money on oxen at the beginning.)
But I digress. We’re not concerned with speedometers or Oregon Trail in this piece. We’re way more interested in EBR-I Atomic Museum.
Somewhere along Goodale’s Cutoff, there’s a huge, welcoming sign for the Idaho National Laboratory. Pass that a bit, and there’s a long road winding through the Black Vomit to EBR-I. It’s so remote and weird that you halfway expect to see Art Bell’s trailer. The site has a modest outside space, which is surrounded by a prison-style fence complete with barbed wire. We entered the facility through a gate, to the left of which was a guard shack with a cheerful sign in the window (and no people) noting something along the lines of, “Airborne Hanta Virus. Entry Prohibited,” with one of those symbols from 28 Days Later. This was going to be awesome.
Just past the guard house were two enormous nuclear-powered engines, like stories tall, complete with shielding and reactor systems, just sitting out there. Wait, what? Yes, nuclear-powered jet engines were a thing. Or at least a couple of them were. At one point during the Cold War, we for some reason thought it a good idea to make flying nuclear reactors. This was a bad idea for so many reasons, the least of which being the weight of the engines. I mean if you saw them, “hey that should fly” would not even be in your brain’s top million thoughts.
Research for nuclear aircraft was completed by all of your normal players—Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA), Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP), Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Aircraft Reactor Experiment—and eventually resulted in the two General Electric turbo fan engines, successfully powered to “near” full thrust. And now they’re sitting in the Idaho sunshine, pretty accessible for any Soviet spy who may wander by and be in the market for almost seventy-year-old nuclear technology.
Speaking of the Soviets, they totally got us on this one. We thought they had a fully functional, nuclear-powered jet that was actually making test flights over Moscow. An article in Aviation magazine detailed their entire program. Models were built to the specifications outlined in the piece. But guess what? It was all bunk. The article, the plane… it was all a hoax. Good job, America.
Dennis our tour guide, who was awesome in every way, met us in the parking lot. The school kids hadn’t yet arrived—it seems school buses and icy roads don’t mix well—so we had a lovely chat, during which I found out that the museum had National Parks Passport Stamps! Two different ones! Sadly, I’d forgotten my National Parks Passport (I grabbed my real passport instead—really), so had to settle for the stamps on a piece of paper, which I promptly pasted into my passport once I got home.
Once the school kids got there, we were taken into what looked like a conference room for a lumber company, circa 1986. Here we watched some retro but still accurate videos about nuclear waste, storage and other atomic concerns. The video showing a jet hitting the containment unit of a nuclear plant was particularly great. The jet is literally obliterated. We also learned the basics of nuclear physics and got to play with a Geiger counter and a fuel rod! Okay, not a real fuel rod, but a super-close approximation.
Speaking of fuel rods, have you ever seen a real one? If you’re like me, then the answer is no, and your brain’s version probably looks like the piece of glowing stuff that gets stuck to Homer during The Simpsons introduction. This is very, very wrong. The best way I can describe a nuclear fuel rod is to liken it to an aerial from a 1988 Olds Cutlass Supreme—really.
After holding the fuel rod we went up the stairs and into the main part of the building. OMG the awesomeness was overwhelming. First off, visitors look down on an Atomic Era living room set.
I want to steal this. Especially the kidney-shaped tables.
After admiring the Mad Men furniture, we turned around and looked at the turbine that was first spun by heat from the EBR-I reactor! This turbine powered the generator, which was used to create electricity that lit the first four 200-watt light bulbs in 1951—the first usable amount of electricity generated from nuclear fuel! Behind the turbine is a cement wall covered in the chalk signatures of the men who worked on the project, including the janitor. Now, this was 1951 and ladies were not real people in the business/science world, so those involved in the project were not asked to sign. This all changed in the late nineties when a plaque was added to the wall with the signatures of the women involved in the experiment. (They couldn’t sign the wall because at this point EBR-I was a historic site and couldn’t be altered.)
Continuing past the cement wall we entered THE CONTROL ROOM. This is the honest-to-goodness control room that was used in the first and following firing-ups of EBR-I. The buttons! The gauges! The switches! Of course everything is disconnected now, but you can push buttons! This was my favorite button:
I know I’m mixing genres here, but I pretended I was Scotty and said nonsensical things related to starship engineering in a really bad Scottish accent. The school kids wouldn’t play with me and I don’t think my mom took any pictures like she said she was.
After the control room, we walked out a very submarine-like doorway to a narrow platform that took us on top of the reactor core. I tried to make a Four Square check-in for it, but it was a no go, as cell service is pretty iffy inside a nuclear reactor. Anyway, from the top of the core, we looked down on all sorts of goodness while waiting for the kids to get off the reactor core and let me look. Get off my lawn! One of the best things below was the Old West style bank vault. Why was this in here? Well, apparently nuclear science was such a new thing at this point that we didn’t really know how else to store fuel rods, so we put them in a bank vault.
The Evacuation Route sign makes me think of In-N-Out Burger.
After the kids cleared out, I got to stand on top of the core. The folks at EBR-I have thoughtfully drilled a hole in the top, and covered it with lots and lots of Plexiglas so that nerds like me can look down inside. And it was just about the coolest thing ever. I know it’s pretty hard to see, the Plexiglas was really scratched up, but here’s a picture looking down into the core of the first breeder reactor in the world. I know you’re jealz.
The white in the picture is not a criticality or Marie Curie’s ghost, just an awful flash reflection, but you can see some of the innards. Like the holes where the fuel rods go. You can make them out as the circular spots in the middle-left of the picture. This was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. I wanted to pull a Leo from Titanic and spread my arms and shout out, “I’m the King of the World!” Probably best not to screw around on top of a nuclear reactor core though. Even a decommissioned one.
We made a giant U-turn back through the control room and down the wide visitor stairs (you should have seen the “stairs of death” next to the core—they were the narrowest, steepest stairs I have ever seen, worse than even those at The House of the Seven Gables) as we weren’t allowed to use the stairs the original engineers had used. Here, on ground level we took a look at the casing surrounding the core, and got a closer peek inside the bank vault. I really, really should have gotten a picture of myself taken inside the vault with the jail door closed, looking like an old-timey crook but for nuclear stuff (I didn’t think to ask). Oh, and this is where all of the National Historic This and That plaques live too.
Around the corner from the vault is the rod farm (my new wireless network name), where the spent fuel rods live until they are moved to longer-term storage; it’s essentially spent fuel rod purgatory. Each numbered hole was used to store a rod.
This chalkboard was used to keep track of which rods were in which holes. It’s kind of like Battleship, but more like Global Thermonuclear War because there aren’t ships and there is a real possibility of radiation.3
At the end of the rod farm, sitting above on rails, if I remember right, is the hot cell. The hot cell is used to manipulate (fix and inspect) the radioactive materials used at the site. The window into the cell is 34 layers, 39-inches deep, providing great protection from the radioactive materials. This is one of those super cool robot hands in the box where you use your own hands to control the hands on the inside of the hot cell and they touch all the stuff on the inside that will kill you. The hot cell can move along the rod farm (kind of like a railroad car) and allow nuclear workers to manipulate the crops below (what? nuclear energy is “harvested” after all).
Now this may very well be the coolest photo I’ve ever taken. Or that anyone has taken. First, there is the robot arm, which looks like it has lost the Human vs. Robot wars that will one day come because it’s just hanging there all limp (this is the arm you get to move around from the outside), then there are the dots. The bright white dots on the right of the image are actually flashes from my iPhone, reflecting off of each of the 34 layers of glass in the window! And there’s some other random sciencey stuff going on in the cell that’s pretty cool too.
Sadly, this was the last stop on our tour. There was much more fantastic nuclear stuff to look at the INL, but my mom is not nearly as nuclear-nerdy as I am and we had a five-hour drive home ahead of us. We said goodbye to Dennis, then took one last look at the ridiculously oversized engines in the parking lot and headed west in the Impala.
And that’s what I did during my Christmas Vacation. How was yours?
1 Is that not the best name ever?
2 This is really where Oregon Trail takes place. Well, the more southern route, mostly, but still. There’s even an historical marker where the trail-goers crossed the Snake River; you know the place where all of your stuff falls off the wagon and Luke Perry always drowns, but you make it across with two of your oxen and sixteen boxes of bullets? Yep, it’s a real place. They even have re-enactments every year. Sometimes horses die!
3 Did you know that if you were to touch a spent fuel rod, you would die in 3.6 seconds? However, if you were to surround that same fuel rod with four feet (I think) of water, you would be completely shielded from the radiation. But please, don’t take my word for this and go off putting spent fuel rods in your bathtub.
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