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S5G Nuclear Prototype Plant, Nuclear Power Training Unit, Idaho Falls, ID

(Song: "America the Beautiful" - reflecting on the beauty of the 'Idaho high desert' against the mountains)

I. Navy Training Site at INEL(Now INEEL):  Harnessing "the power of the atom . . . "

        The Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL) is physically located in several Idaho Falls facilities and on 890 square miles of high desert about 50 miles west of the city.  The Site was established in 1949 as the National Reactor Testing Station. For many years, it contained the world’s largest concentration of nuclear reactors. Fifty-two reactors, most of them first-of-a-kind, were built here, including the U.S. Navy’s first prototype for a submarine nuclear propulsion plant.

• In 1951, the Site achieved one of the most significant scientific accomplishments of the 20th Century. Nuclear fission was first used to produce usable quantities of electricity at Experimental Breeder Reactor-I. EBR-I is now a registered National Historic Landmark open to the public during the summer.

• In 1974, the Site became the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.

• The desert location is also a National Environmental Research Park, one of only seven in the United States. All land within the Site is a protected outdoor laboratory where scientists from many organizations and agencies conduct ecological studies.

• Lockheed Martin Idaho Technologies Company (LMITCO) is the prime contractor. Argonne National Laboratory-West is operated by the University of Chicago, and the Naval Reactors Facility is operated by Bechtel Bettis Inc.

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• In January of 1997, the Site was renamed the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory to reflect its primary applied engineering and environmental management missions.

• At the end of 1998, the INEEL employed 8,006 people. LMITCO had 5,762 employees, DOE-Idaho had 379, Argonne National Laboratory-West had 747 and the Naval Reactors Facility had 1,118. ANL-W belongs to the DOE-Chicago Operations Office, and NRF answers to DOE’s Pittsburgh Naval Reactors Office.

II. Background History of INEEL

President Harry Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act on Aug. 1, 1946, moving atomic energy from military to civilian control. The newly created Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) replaced the military that had developed the bomb. The first AEC chairman, David Lilientahl, took over responsibility for the 37 installations that had been transferred to civilian control. Director of Research Lawrence Hafstad was assigned to develop a Reactor Testing Station where various prototype nuclear reactors could be designed, built and tested.  Dr. Walter Zinn, director of Argonne National Laboratory, wanted to locate a prototype breeder reactor near the University of Chicago. But Dr. Edward Teller felt it should be located in a more remote location, at least five miles from a populated area. Over 70 potential sites were considered.  The final choice was between Fort Peck, Montana and the Lost River Desert of eastern Idaho. Consultants recommended the “Pocatello, Idaho Site.”

The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory was officially established in 1949 as the National Reactor Testing Station – the winner of a nationwide, competitive selection process to find an isolated station where various kinds of nuclear reactors and related support facilities could be built and tested.  The Idaho site, they said, was a remote desert location where much of the land was already owned by the government, having been used as a gunnery range for the Naval Proving Grounds. There was also an adequate supply of water from an underground aquifer.

Additional land was secured from the state of Idaho with a small amount purchased from a rancher for under $10 an acre. Idaho Falls was chosen for the headquarters city, and a road was constructed to the site in 1950. The new site was named the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS) and was ready for its mission. L.E. “Bill” Johnston was named the first director.

Construction began immediately on Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-1) On December 20, 1951 -- EBR-I achieved one of the century’s most significant scientific accomplishments: for the first time anywhere in the world, a usable amount of electricity was generated by nuclear fission.  EBR-I also demonstrated that a “breeder” reactor can produce more fuel than it consumes. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the decommissioned facility a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1966.

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The Test Reactor Area (TRA) occupies 102 acres in the southwest portion of the INEEL.  The TRA was established in the early 1950s with the development of the Materials Test Reactor.  Over the years, 52 reactors (the largest cluster in the world) were built at the site, including two breeder reactors, four naval reactors and three test reactors. Three reactors are currently in operation with another 10 still operational.  Beside EBR-1, which lit the first light bulbs, other notable reactors were the Materials Testing Reactor (MTR), Submarine Thermal Reactor and the Boiling Water Reactor Experiment (BORAX).

BORAX, a prototype light water reactor, proved that commercial electricity could be safely generated from nuclear power and the nuclear power industry was launched. Two other major reactors were subsequently built at the TRA: the Engineering Test Reactor and the Advanced Test Reactor. The Engineering Test Reactor has been inactive since January 1982. The Materials Test Reactor was shut down in 1970, and the building is now used for offices, storage, and experimental test areas. The major program at the TRA is now the Advanced Test Reactor. Since the Advanced Test Reactor achieved criticality in 1967, it's been used almost exclusively by the Department of Energy's Naval Reactors Program. After almost 30 years of operation, this reactor is still considered a premier test facility. And it's projected to remain a major facility for research, radiation testing, and isotope production into the next century.

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On July 17, 1955,  BORAX III, a boiling water reactor, third in a series of five reactors,  temporarily provided electricity to Arco, Idaho, the world’s first generation of commercial nuclear power.

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The Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Project was started in 1955 with the Heat Transfer Reactor hoping to power a nuclear jet engine that could keep a plane in the air for 30 days without refueling. The development of cheaper and more reliable ballistic missiles ended the project in 1961.

On January 3, 1961, the first fatal nuclear accident in the world (related to nuclear power) happened at the NRTS when the Stationary Low Power Reactor No. 1 (SL-I) experienced a power excursion resulting in a steam explosion that killed three technicians. This accident marks the only nuclear-related fatalities ever to occur in the U.S. nuclear industry. To this day, these are the only nuclear power-related deaths to occur in the U.S. nuclear industry. 

Larry Beller, a physicist and personal friend, was peripherally involved in the accident investigation.  He is also a hobbyist in  matters of historical significance.  He recently related some first-hand recollections and opinions that I thought would be memorable to include:

"Argonne (who designed, built, and operated it [SL-1] for the Army), built-in, as it turned out, a fatal error in design.  The central control rod was so important that the reactor could be made supercritical on that rod alone, all others being fully inserted.  That's exactly what happened. 

It happened this way.  The central rod had been sticking off and on for months.  The reactor manager wanted to shut down to fix it, but the Army wouldn't let him.   The reactor had been down for a week or so, with all control rods disconnected.  The graveyard shift, the three technicians, were reconnecting them; they did this by lifting the rod manually an inch or so, then coupling it to the drive and letting it down.  One technician was squatting over the rod; apparently it stuck.  He was a weight lifter, and apparently he overdid it.   They found him stuck to the ceiling like a bug, with the rod extension pinning him to it.

The reactor had been drained down to just above the top of the core.  The reactor went hypercritical; your steam explosion followed. That drove a slug of water as a water hammer against the head.  That lifted the whole reactor, which broke the primary piping.  It was a real mess.

The bodies were so radioactive from fuel debris that they had to be buried in lead coffins. To my knowledge, no one has built a reactor like that since.  I know no civilian reactor has that characteristic, but I don't know the characteristics of propulsion reactors.  In any event, that's no way to design, or run, a reactor.

As you said, it was a power excursion.  The way it happened won't happen again."


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The Idaho Chemical Processing Plant was built in 1953 to reprocess fuel elements from the MTR and uranium slugs from Hanford to recover enriched uranium-235 for use in the production of nuclear weapons made elsewhere. ON October 21, 1953, usable enriched uranium-235 was recovered from spent nuclear fuel at the Idaho Chemical Processing Plant . Before reprocessing ended in 1992, employees recovered 24,000 kilograms of uranium worth over $1 billion. The ICPP was renamed the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC) in 1998. Spent fuel is no longer reprocessed, and INTEC now solidifies radioactive liquid waste for dry, above-ground storage.

Naval Reactors Facility (NRF)


The Naval Reactors Facility (NRF) is the birthplace of the U.S. Nuclear Navy.  It was established to support development of naval nuclear propulsion and was operated by the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program.  It operated under the direct supervision of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the Nuclear Navy.    

In the early 1950s, work was initiated at the INEEL to develop reactor prototypes for the U.S. Navy.  NRF built and operated three prototype nuclear propulsion plants that played an important role in the development of Naval nuclear propulsion.  Prototype reactors for both submarines and surface ships were developed at this site.  Within these prototypes, material and equipment were developed and tested in an operational environment.  In addition, from 1953 until May 1995 when the last prototype was shut down, NRF served as a training school for officers and enlisted personnel destined for service aboard nuclear-powered ships, and for testing purposes.  Nearly 40,000 Navy personnel received training at NRF.  These shutdown facilities are no longer used for testing and training.   

NRF’s ongoing mission includes the receipt, inspection and analysis of Navy spent nuclear fuel and components.  As it has for nearly 40 years, NRF continues to receive and examine Naval spent fuel.    

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NRTS became the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL) in 1974 and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) in 1997, reflecting changes in its mission.

The Navy makes shipments of naval spent fuel to INEEL that are necessary to meet national security requirements to de-fuel or re-fuel nuclear powered submarines, surface warships, or naval prototype or training reactors, or to ensure examination of naval spent fuel from these sources. The Secretary of Defense, upon notice to the Governor of the State of Idaho, certifies the total number of such shipments of naval spent fuel required to be made through the year 2035.  From calendar year 2001 through 2035, the Navy may ship a running average of no more than twenty (20) shipments per year to INEL. The total number of shipments of naval spent fuel to INEL through 2035 shall not exceed 575. Shipments of naval spent fuel to INEL through 2035 shall not exceed 55 metric tons of spent fuel.

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Updated: 2/18/2004