By Will Searight
In the not-so-distant 20th century past, our planet was in an uncertain new-world order. The second of two major wars had dramatically reshaped the landscape of the world’s nations. It was not by any means assured that the extraordinary nuclear process of fission, which itself had been discovered mere years before the second war’s end, would be successfully utilized for anything but the tremendous and frightening powers realized in thermonuclear warheads. In the years following, a humble project materializing out of the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho was to challenge that assertion and demonstrate that nuclear fission could indeed be a commercial, peaceful source of electrical power for civilizations around the globe.
This reactor, dubbed the Experimental Breeder Reactor number 1 (EBR-I), was successful on December 20, 1951, in producing electrical power sufficient to power four 200 watt lightbulbs, as pictured below.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=203080
EBR-I was not the first nuclear reactor in the U.S. to generate electrical power, that was the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The X-10 was used mostly for plutonium production for weapons, and later after the war for radioisotope production for medical facilities. EBR-I also has the honor of being the world’s first “operating breeder reactor,” a reactor which produces more fuel for the fission process that it consumes. The breeding process involves creating Plutonium, which can readily fission, from the most abundant isotope of Uranium, which only fissions with high-energy neutrons via neutron bombardment in the reactor. This was at the center of EBR-I’s mission, to validate the concept of a breeder reactor that can both maximize the amount of energy obtained from natural uranium, and to demonstrate the great utility and reliability of electrical energy obtained from nuclear fission. After that historic day of illuminating the test lightbulbs, the power output
By Will Searight