by Will Davis
December 20, 1951 marks an important date in the history of nuclear power; it’s the date on which the first useful electric power was generated by atomic fission. While the now-famous event at that time only powered four light bulbs, the somewhat stunt-like nature of the day obscured the fact that the plant was actually set up to generate considerably more power, and did so. Let’s take a look at this fact and, at the same time, the facility through illustrations from my collection and from photographs that I took myself while touring EBR-1 earlier this year.
EBR-1 sits in a somewhat remote corner of the already-remote Idaho National Laboratory. When built at the dawn of the 1950’s, the plant was officially in the National Reactor Testing Station – an area procured to allow the construction of various test reactors which could be operated and even tested to destruction in some cases without impact to the public. While the whole site is gigantic it’s possible to spot some facilities at a long distance because of the level ground.
This illustration from my library shows the general layout of this compact plant. Much of this can be seen today if a tour is made, and a great deal of equipment has been cleaned up and placed on display such as fuel elements. In order to keep with our theme, take careful note of the turbine generator set seen here (“turbogenerator”) near the top right of this illustration. It was this machine which generated the electricity to power the famous four light bulbs on December 20, 1951.
Both the steam turbine supplied to the EBR-1 plant and the Elliott generator, whose identification plate is seen here, were rated for a maximum of 300 KW. The plant output was somewhat less than this as