As World War II came to an end, many of the scientists who helped develop the first nuclear bombs wanted to pursue more peaceful applications of atomic research.
In the desert an hour west of Idaho Falls, the U.S. government established the Idaho National Laboratory, home to the Experimental Breeder Reactor Number 1 (EBR-1), the first reactor in the world to produce electricity. The power was initially used to light the building housing the reactor, but world events gave rise to a bigger mission.
In August 1955 one of the first Atoms for Peace conferences was held in Geneva, Switzerland. “Leading up to it, the Soviet Union claimed that everything nuclear in the U.S. was about weapons,” says Don Miley, tours director at the Idaho National Laboratory. To prove them wrong, scientists at the national laboratory set out to produce nuclear-generated electricity for public consumption.
“The first time they tried, they were out of phase with the utility power feed and they ‘fried’ seven miles of power lines—dropped them to the ground,” Miley says. Soon after, on the night of July 17, 1955, the latest reactor, Borax III, produced electricity for Arco, Idaho.
The town never knew they were being electrified thanks to nuclear power from the nearby test reactor. “They didn’t tell anybody they were doing it,” Miley says. “Only the editor of the Arco newspaper knew, but he agreed he would not say anything.” The residents of Arco had just made world history in their sleep, but no one knew it.
The secrecy allowed the U.S. to make a big announcement at the Atoms for Peace conference in Geneva. “It allowed the U.S. representatives to stand up and proudly proclaim, ‘The U.S. has lit an entire city with one nuclear reactor,’” Miley says. Of course, no one at the conference realized the “city” was tiny Arco, population 995.
Arco still celebrates Atomic Days every summer. The Idaho National Laboratory remains the nation’s leading site for nuclear energy research and works on other energy solutions such as agricultural biomass.
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