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You don’t look 70, INL!

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Heat transfer reactor experiment in 1955. | Courtesy Idaho National Laboratory

IDAHO FALLS — The Idaho National Laboratory is celebrating its 70th anniversary.

To celebrate the INL’s 70th birthday, a gala was held at The Waterfront in Idaho Falls on Wednesday evening. The gala hosted key INL employees as well as Idaho Gov. Brad Little and Congressman Mike Simpson.

“We’ve really grown into a lab that does a lot of things for the nation,” INL Director Dr. Mark Peters said. “I would say that there are opportunities for the State of Idaho and this region become more of an energy innovation corridor.”

On Feb. 18, 1949, the United States Atomic Energy Commission created the National Reactor Testing Station in eastern Idaho. The testing station would later become the INL. But its history goes back a bit further to 1942.

The Navy chose the 211 acres of land as a firing range 65 miles from the Naval Ordnance Plant, which was established Apr. 1, 1942, in Pocatello, according to “Proving the Principle: A History of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory 1949 to 1999.”

A little over a year after the Naval Ordnance Plant was built, the Naval Proving Ground was dedicated on Aug. 2, 1943. It was divided into two sections, the firing range and the residential area.

Right to left: Rep. Mike Simpson, INL Director Dr. Mark Peters, DOE Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dr. Rita Baranwal, Gov. Brad Little | Mike Price, EastIdahoNews.com

“They had a place where civilians could watch them fire the guns occasionally. I remember how the ground would shake; it was a terrific concussion. your eyes sort of vibrated and your vision was blurry. After the shot, you could see a poof of dirt in the desert,” Kay Lambson is quoted as saying in “Proving the Principle.”

In August 1946, a year after the U.S. dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima and Fat Man on Nagasaki, Japan, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act and created the civilian-run Atomic Energy Commission.

With the Cold War looming, and the U.S. out of atomic bombs, the AEC’s first priority was creating more bombs. But the possibility of atomic energy to power warships and planes was too tantalizing for the U.S. government to overlook. So the AEC’s priorities shifted.

According to “Proving the Principle,” the AEC had much research and testing to do before the government’s dreams could become a reality. To do that research and testing safely, they decided they needed a remote location, and it just so happened the Navy already had the perfect spot in eastern Idaho.

Thus, on Feb. 18, 1949, the National Reactor Testing Station was born. The press, at the time, called it the “atom plant.”

The atom plant would evolve over the next 70 years into the Idaho National Laboratory.

“We have a rich, rich history that’s really built around nuclear energy. Everything that’s been built across the world traces its roots back to here in eastern Idaho,” Peters said.

Little said the best of nuclear technology was developed at the INL over the last 70 years.

“Every time this country had a need — whether it was grid management, whether it was batteries for the Mars rover, whether it was cybersecurity — this facility and the people here answered the call,” Little said.

Dr. Rita Baranwal, U.S. Department of Energy assistant secretary for nuclear energy, said nuclear energy accounts for 60 percent of clean energy generated in the U.S.

“The Department of Energy has been working very hard to meet the president’s challenge to revive, revitalize and expand the nation’s nuclear energy sector,” Baranwal said. “I’m looking forward to continuing that great progress.”

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