EBR-1: The World’s First Nuclear Power Plant

It’s not every day you’re just driving down the road and see signs inviting you to visit the world’s first nuclear power plant just half a mile out of your way. When this happens, you say yes.

As much of a science nerd as I am, I’d never heard of EBR-1 until I saw the signs for it. I showed up just in time for a guided tour and drank through a fire hose of nuclear power plant information. After World War II, there was a big “atoms for peace” push by the government. We’d seen the destructive power of atomic energy at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it rightfully scared a lot of people. EBR-1 was the first of 52 nuclear power plants built to experiment specifically with peaceful uses for nuclear power.

EBR-1 stands for “Experimental Breeder Reactor #1.” Its purpose, besides science, was to create more nuclear fuel than it used, which is why it’s called a breeder reactor. Without going too deep into the science, it used uranium-235, the same element that fueled the first atom bombs, to create uranium-238 and plutonium-239. Later on, EBR-1 also ran on plutonium.

It was pretty crazy, casually walking into a nuclear reactor control room. Not just any, but one where many breakthroughs and discoveries were made. I had to go read and watch some documentaries about EBR-1 after my visit, and it was wild to see all the historical footage shot right where I’d just been. President Johnson visited EBR-1 around the time it was shut down and declared it a National Historic Landmark in 1965. That’s why it’s preserved so well today.

This is where the magic happens: the reactor core. It’s all cleaned up and decontaminated now, but this is where the rods of uranium went into the reactor and did their thing. It still blows my mind that I was allowed to stand here, on top of the reactor, where it all happened.

This is where the steam turbine spun a generator and produced the world’s first electricity created from nuclear power. To demonstrate the concept, the scientists strung up four light bulbs next to the generator and connected them to it. They lit up. The next day, they ran the entire facility on nuclear power.

This is one of two identical tools they used to load and unload the fuel rods. One was for loading new, pure fuel, while the other was for dealing with spent rods, which may also have been contaminated by the sodium potassium, or “NaK,” used to cool the reactor. Having two separate tools allowed the reactor to get refueled without contaminating the fresh uranium.

Spent fuel rods were still plenty radioactive, and were stored in this concrete holding facility before being moved to the chamber in back, where they were dismantled and sent out to be refined into new fuel for whatever purpose.

The walls and even the glass of this chamber were a few feet thick to contain the radioactivity inside. It was too cramped to get a good picture, but complex manipulator arms on the outside controlled tools inside to cut down and safely store the uranium rods before they were shipped out.

It’s interesting that there was no mention of the fact that EBR-1 was also the site of the world’s first nuclear meltdown. It happened during a test, where the scientists were aware that this was a risk. They simply didn’t know better at the time what would happen. They shut down the reactor and contained it, but it was out of commission for months to deal with the aftermath and cleanup. It was brought back online and used successfully for many years afterward. I don’t glow in the dark after being there.

There was even more to see, but the pictures didn’t come out very well through thick glass and tight quarters. They hid absolutely nothing from us on this tour. The entire (decommissioned) nuclear power plant was wide open for us to roam around, even outside of the guided tour. How often does that happen?

Best of all, I had absolutely no plans to visit. I didn’t even know this place existed until I saw the signs for it. It pays to keep your travel plans flexible for situations like this. You never know when you might get an unplanned tour of a nuclear power plant or something equally awesome.

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