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In my travels, I’m drawn to the backroads where you happen upon some strange and interesting
things. Last week, I made such a find in the sagebrush desert of eastern Idaho, when
I happened upon the Atomic Days festival in the small town of Arco. To add to the
whimsy, the centerpiece of a small roadside park was the con tower of a nuclear submarine
marked as 666. Further investigation was required.
It turns out that this small, isolated town was the focal point for early pioneering
efforts to find peaceful uses for nuclear energy. When the government was setting
up its nuclear test sites around the country after World War II, it chose 870 square
miles of eastern Idaho desert because of its isolation and because it sits atop the
Snake River Plain aquifer, a plentiful supply of water needed to keep their research
The first facility EBR-1 (Experimental Breeder Reactor) proved the concept of electrical
generation in 1951. It is located about 20 miles outside of Arco and is now a National
Historic Landmark with guided tours and the works. This plant was the first of several
test plants built in what is now known as the Idaho National Lab (INL). Some of them,
particularly the two Rube Goldbergian nuclear “engines” on display at EBR-1 that were
intended to power bombers that never needed to be refueled seem kind of kooky.
The Navy stuck with the idea of building smaller reactors to power its ships and submarines
with its research base being at the INL site. At this time all of our 72 submarines
are nuclear powered as are 10 aircraft carriers. The sail (con tower) of the USS Hawkbill,
one of the first generation of nuclear powered subs, was moved to Arco when it was
decommissioned in 2000.
It was Borax III, one of the 52 experimental reactors built at the INL site over the
years, that provided the power to light Arco on July 17, 1955. The test lasted slightly
more than an hour, but in those Cold War days, you would have thought a major metropolis
had been lit for all the propaganda our government spewed out, instead of a town of
fewer than 2,000 people.
Modest as it was, powering Arco was an important milestone and launched us into the
nuclear age. Today about 20 percent of our national supply (22 percent in Arkansas)
of electricity comes from nuclear power plants. As the world heats up from all the
fossil fuel we’ve been burning, it is time to reconsider what role nuclear power will
have in our future. The three major nuclear accidents we’ve had around the world scare
people away from nuclear power. It’s hard to understand technology, waste is difficult
to deal with and the thought of nuclear proliferation in a world gone mad with sectarianism
is scary. But these plants do produce a lot of power without adding to the global
Most of the nuclear power plants, including the two reactors in Arkansas, were built
in the 1970s and ‘80s. The Arkansas reactors are licensed to operate until 2034 and
2038. One new reactor came on line in 2016 in Tennessee and two more are slated to
come on line in 2023 in Georgia, but the larger situation is that the United States
has a suite of 93 reactors that are approaching the end of their design life. Will
we abandon them as they did in Germany and power all of our new electric cars by solar
and wind? Is that even possible?
The INL researchers are forecasting a different future for nuclear power plants. The
INL testing has identified materials to use in nuclear reactors that make them cheaper
to build while still standing up to the demands of bombardment of all those electrons
and protons. They believe smaller modular reactors that produce a tenth as much energy
as our larger plants is the way of the future because construction time is less, they
are cheaper and they can be built in areas where electrical demand is highest. In
addition they are working on micro reactors — ones small enough to move around on
a truck. One is in design to power the lunar colony that is supposed to happen in
the next decade.
Bill Gates formed Terra Power in 2008, a company intended to build modern nuclear
power plants using Nutrium technology. This system uses liquid sodium to cool the
radioactive core, making it cheaper to build because high pressure steam is not generated
and the radioactive products are more efficiently used. Kemmerer, WY has been selected
as the site for the first reactor, estimated to cost one billion dollars as compared
to the 12 billion being spent on one of the Georgia reactors now under construction.
It is slated to go online in 2028.
It seems to me we will have nuclear power in our future in some form or fashion. As
we transition away from the fossil fuel model towards a more sustainable future, let’s
hope the choices made by planners, engineers and politicians are wise ones.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at email@example.com.