Atomic City

In the middle of a vast sagebrush sea, where lava beds the color of black charcoal rise like giant ocean waves and ancient streams run underground into the Snake River, sits the Idaho National Laboratory. Or so that's what the place is called today. Operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, there have been multiple names changes over the years. It started as the National Reactor Testing Station in 1949, became the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in 1970, then the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in 1997, and since 2005, the Idaho National Laboratory (or even more simply, the letters "INL"). Regardless of the name, the purpose of the site has always been the same: to research peaceful atomic energy production.

The facility (which employs some 3,300 people in a massive complex of buildings and structures closed to the public known as "Atomic City"), was created after the end of WWII, when government scientists began to focus on civilian applications of atomic fission. In order to do the research, the eggheads wanted a site with: 1. lots of room (like a million acres), 2. not many people around (in case the shit goes half-life) and, 3. stable geology (earthquakes would be a problem). The Idaho desert plain met all three pre-requisites, and over the course of the last fifty years, fifty nuclear reactors have been in operation at one time or another. The most famous being EBR-1, as seen here. On August 21, 1951, the reactor went critical for the first time. On December 20, 1951, the reactor created enough power to light up four 200 watt bulbs. Four years later, on July 17, 1955, "Expirimental Breeder Reactor-1" made history when the streetlights in the nearby desert enclave of Arco became the first in the world to be powered by atomic energy.

Any jubilation was short-lived however, as five months later, EBR-1 suffered an operator-caused partial meltdown. Things got even worse in 1961, when an expirimental reactor named SL-1 had a complete meltdown and killed three workers, the first peace-time atomic fatalities in the United States. Due to exceptional levels of isotope contamination at the accident scene, lead coffins had to be used for the burials.

Rusting in the desert sun next to the EBR-1 building are two prototype propulsion reactors for nuclear bombers (later made obsolete by ICBM's), providing a glimpse into how fine the line is between civilian-use energy research and weapon making. It reminded us of Iran, and the high-stakes chess game being played right now (private message to our loyal readership in Tehran: If y'all are just powering up your homes and schools and factories like you say you are, then stop all the foolishness and let international inspectors take a look. This situation has real potential to spiral out of control. Like start WWIII).

Five decades after the INL harnessed the power of the atom and lit up a desolate corner of Idaho, 104 commercial nuclear powerplants now produce 20% of our nation's electricity. No acid rain is produced and no rivers are dammed in the process. Today, the INL is researching new atomic applications, such as long-life plutonium technology (called radioisotope thermoelectric generators by lab nerds, they are essentially super batteries used in space probes and artificial hearts). If we could find a safe way to deal with the waste, if we could stop rogue countries from converting peaceful energy production into atomic bombs, then we'd party like it was July 17, 1955 again.

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