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 projects cool.
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 warming crisis.
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.