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Tour the first nuclear reactor to produce electricity using atomic power in Arco this weekend

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The EBR-I museum is 18 miles east of Arco and about 50 miles west of Idaho Falls on U.S. Highway 20/26. Watch a brief history of the museum in the video player above, originally published March 25, 2019. | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

ARCO – An Arco museum is opening this Saturday as part of an annual community celebration.

The Experimental Breeder Reactor Atomic Museum 18 miles east of Arco and about 50 miles west of Idaho Falls on U.S. Highway 20/26 will be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to celebrate Atomic Days.

EBR-I was the first nuclear reactor in the world to make useable amounts of electricity by lighting four lightbulbs on Dec. 20, 1951. Walter Zinn and a group of scientists “lit four light bulbs, and the next day, lit the entire building,” according to Idaho National Laboratory spokesman Don Miley.

Testing at EBR-I confirmed that a reactor could create more fuel than it consumes and it paved the way for an even bigger scientific breakthrough with a different reactor four years later.

In July of 1955, another group of scientists attempted to use nuclear energy to power an entire town.

“They tied the generator into the power grid and flipped a switch. They were not in phase with the utility and fried seven miles of power lines,” says Miley.

They tried it again several days later, and this time they succeeded.

Following the proof of principle at EBR-1, Arco used nuclear energy from the BORAX-3 reactor about a half-mile from EBR-I to power its lights for more than an hour on July 17, 1955.

Carol Jardine, a resident of Arco, remembers what happened that day. In an interview with EastIdahoNews.com in 2019, she said no one knew what was going on.

“It was very hush-hush, and we didn’t know what happened until it was over,” Jardine recalls.

She was in high school at the time. Her memory of that day is vague, but she does remember where she was when it happened. She was watching a movie at the old Walker movie theater and there was a power surge.

“The show went off, and then it came back on,” she says.

Though powering Arco with nuclear energy was groundbreaking, Miley says it was just a drop in the bucket given Arco’s small size.

“Lighting Arco with one reactor wasn’t that big of a deal. It did not require megawatts of electricity. It was pretty small at that point,” he says.

And that’s exactly what Jardine and others thought.

“To a 17-year-old kid, it wasn’t a big deal. Later on, I was secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and that’s when they started Atomic Days,” says Jardine.

Atomic Days is a celebration of the events of that day. EBR-I is now a national landmark and is typically open during the summer months. Due to COVID precautions, it was closed in 2020 and is reopening with limited hours in 2021.

After the Atomic Days Parade Saturday morning, the INL will transport a busload of people from Arco to EBR-I on a first-come, first-served basis for a 1-hour tour and return them to Arco. Sign up to ride the bus at the INL booth Saturday morning. Private vehicles are also welcome at the museum. There is no fee for the bus ride or entrance to the museum.

To enhance your trip, download the TravelStorys app on your phone before you leave home and you can listen to a guided narration on your drive across the desert.

For more information about the museum and the latest information on hours of operation, visit the website.

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