The Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 Museum

The Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 Museum is between Arco, Idaho and Idaho Falls, Idaho, on US 20. We found our way there on a recent road trip. The museum is a small concrete structure on the grounds of the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), a United States Department of Energy (DOE) research lab dedicated to all aspects of nuclear energy research.

We had spent the previous night at the Mountain View Arco RV Camp and Restaurant. On our way to dinner at Pickle’s Place, we discovered an intriguing sign:

Sign text: "The First City in the World to be lit by Atomic Power"

The First City in the World to be lit by Atomic Power (copyright 2017, Martin Fouts, all rights reserved)

We had to find out more.  We drove to the ERB-1 site, took some photos, took a guided tour, and discovered the catch:  It was only lit briefly.

The first thing you notice at the ERB-1 site is three ungainly devices displayed outside. They are experimental devices unrelated to ERB-1, but interesting in their own right.  They were for:

sign giving history of the plane that never was

Once, upon a time, the US investigated a wide range of potential uses for nuclear power. Not the most far fetched, but certainly out there is the plane that never was. (copyright 2017, Martin Fouts, all rights reserved)

The three devices are described in two signs:

Heater 1&2

Test devices for the nuclear powered airplane. (copyright 2017, Martin Fouts, all rights reserved)

Heater 3

Heater 3 (copyright 2017, Martin Fouts, all rights reserved)

all in support of

The Nuclear Powered Airplane

The Nuclear Powered Airplane (copyright 2017, Martin Fouts, all rights reserved)

Despite the radiation warning signs and the dosimeters we saw everywhere, EBR-1 museum points out that it produces a tiny amount of radiation compared to what we always receive:

In our normal lives we live in a radioactive enviroment. At this altitude. we annually receive doses of about 70 mrem from cosmic radiation, 75 mrem from our earthly terrestrial surroundings and from sources within our own bodies for a total of 170 nrem. In addition, natural occurring radon exposure adds about 200 nrem to this dosage making a total of about 370 nrem per year.

The fixed radioactive contamination found here is of such low levels that it cannot be measured in terms of nrem. A much smaller unit of measure, counts per minute, is used
for measurement. In order to compare this fixed contamination to commonly used products that are radioactive, the following items have been selected for comparison:


  • Fixed contamination encountered here – up to 2000 counts  per minute
  • Commercial lantern mantel – 15,000 counts per minute
  • Home Smoke Detector. with 15 microcurie americium 241 source – 30,000 counts per minute
  • Phosphate rock (aggregate) – 500 counts per minute
  • Sources within our body – 25 mrem per year

We were pleasantly surprised that we were allowed to bring Googie along for the guided tour.  Even more surprised when he was well behaved.  The tour is well described in the Self Guided Tour handout.  I won’t describe it here. Two highlights were

  1. Learning that “SCRAM”, the term used for quickly shutting down a reactor, is an acronym for “Safety Control Rod Axe Man”. A control rod was hung from a rope, suspended over the Chicago Pile 1 reactor.  The SCRAM was positioned where he could quickly cut the rope in an emergency, dropping the rod into the  reactor, stopping the reaction.
  2. There are two plaques commemorating the day ERB-1 first lit the facility. The first is a chalk board, now preserved in a glass case, containing the names of the men present on December 20, 1951.  It was placed shortly after the event.  The second, a brass plaque, naming some of the women, who, although not present at the moment, were important to the project,  was place by Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary in 1995.

ERB-1 played no direct role in lighting Arco.  “Arco was the first community in the world ever to be lit by electricity generated solely by nuclear power. This occurred for about an hour on July 17, 1955″  — wikipedia

Googie enjoyed the tour, except for being photographed:

Googie at ERB-1

Googie at ERB-1 (copyright 2017, Martin Fouts, all rights reserved)

Now with Photo Gallery


2 thoughts on “The Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 Museum

  1. Pingback: ERB-1 Photo Gallery | A Dinosaur Contemplating Asteroids

  2. Pingback: I took a ride. | A Dinosaur Contemplating Asteroids

Leave a Reply