How a naval proving ground became a national lab that's 'changing the world's energy future' - East Idaho News
INL 75th anniversary

How a naval proving ground became a national lab that’s ‘changing the world’s energy future’

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Idaho National Laboratory, in the desert near Arco, was once a naval proving ground that tested reconditioned guns taken from ships fighting in World War II. It became the National Reactor Testing Site in 1949. This is a photo of the residential area of the naval proving ground in July 1951. Senior INL Ambassador Shelly Norman explains the history of the Idaho Falls campus in the video above. | Courtesy INL

EDITOR’S NOTE: Throughout 2024, is working with the Idaho National Laboratory to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Each month, we’ll publish stories highlighting the history, achievements and trials of the U.S. Department of Energy’s desert site. We’ll explore the INL’s influence on eastern Idaho, and its day-to-day impact on local people.

IDAHO FALLS – Establishing a nuclear testing site in eastern Idaho put America on the threshold of its greatest era of development.

That’s how a 1949 Post Register editorial described the launch of the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS), the predecessor to what is now Idaho National Laboratory. The desert site sat on 890 square miles of land 50 miles west of Idaho Falls that had previously been used as a naval proving ground to test reconditioned battle guns taken from ships fighting in the Pacific during World War II.

RELATED | Fifth naval ship to carry Idaho’s name will be christened and begin maiden voyage next month

America’s use of the world’s first nuclear weapons four years earlier had brought an end to the war. Two bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, killing 210,000 people. Japan surrendered, and that set the stage for a U.S. victory. It also “signaled the arrival of a new atomic age.”

On Feb. 18, 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission picked up where the Navy left off. The former proving ground was selected as the site for a nuclear research facility. But this time, it wouldn’t be used to test or develop weapons. Its sole purpose was to find ways to use atomic energy for peaceful means.

NRTS sign
A sign for the National Reactor Testing Station on the desert near Arco around 1949 | Courtesy INL

Seventy-five years later, what is now the INL is the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development. Today, it’s managed by the U.S. Department of Energy. Created in 1977, the DOE brought most federal energy activities under one umbrella. Under its leadership, the INL has grown to include an Idaho Falls campus that expands its research efforts beyond nuclear energy. National security and energy and environmental sustainability are part of its mission as well.

With roughly 6,200 employees, it’s the region’s largest employer, and the average person benefits from INL research, whether they realize it or not.

“As a community, our lives revolve around and are dependent on electricity, and we all want to feel protected and secure. The work taking place at INL ensures that happens,” INL spokeswoman Lori McNamara tells

Many commercial products are a direct result of INL research. Senior INL Ambassador Shelly Norman cites one example. The INL owns a patent currently making its way into the private sector for a product that takes waste that can’t be recycled and turns it into insulation.

Throughout 2024, will be celebrating the INL’s 75th anniversary with a series of stories exploring its history, different research projects, aspects of operation and major accomplishments.

Here are some historical highlights to get things started.

Historical highlights

The NRTS gave birth to the world’s first nuclear power plant, Experimental Breeder Reactor I. On Dec. 20, 1951, Walter Zinn and a group of fellow scientists created the world’s first usable electricity generated by nuclear power at EBR-I. They lit four light bulbs and later, the entire building.

About four years later, scientists used another reactor, BORAX-III, to power an entire town with nuclear energy. On July 17, 1955, Arco, 20 miles northwest of EBR-I, became the first city in the world lit by atomic power. A marquee above the Arco Visitor Center states its claim to fame.

RELATED | We Are East Idaho: Arco

The Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine and an unsuccessful attempt to develop a nuclear-powered jet aircraft were other projects that happened with nuclear reactors before the explosion at the Stationary Low-Power Reactor on Jan. 3, 1961. The disaster killed three people and it remains the only fatal nuclear reactor accident in U.S. history.

RELATED | America’s only fatal reactor accident happened in Idaho 61 years ago; prior nuclear bomb test likely killed actors in Utah

During the 1970s, the federal government started expanding the scope of its research at the site. As clean energy and national security became an important part of its mission, administrators realized much of that work could be done closer to home, and that’s how the operation in Idaho Falls began.

IF campus
Drone photo of the Idaho Falls campus of the INL | Courtesy INL

‘They wined and dined those AEC people’

Idaho Falls had been selected as the Atomic Energy Commission headquarters after the launch of the NRTS in 1949. At the time, the river city was in competition with Arco, Blackfoot and Pocatello for that role. A great deal of schmoozing by Idaho Falls city officials is what ultimately led to its selection.

Norman says the city held a big party for the commissioners when they came through the area. The idea was to sell Idaho Falls as the cultural center of eastern Idaho. City officials purposely seated commissioners next to people who shared similar interests. One of the commissioners liked fly fishing and was seated next to a gorgeous woman who also loved fly fishing. Another man who liked opera was seated next to a beautiful opera singer.

In those days, U.S. Highway 20 from the desert site to Idaho Falls did not exist. There was a gravel road Bonneville County had built that ended at a certain point, according to a history book about the INL.

A road between Blackfoot and Arco did exist, which Bingham County officials argued could easily be updated for traffic traveling to and from the desert site. A clever scheme by the Idaho Falls City Council was successful in diverting the AEC’s attention from that fact.

“The mayor brought the AEC out and had a friend move some dirt around at the edge of town (to look like they were preparing to lay asphalt). He had a friend come up over the hill and tell the AEC he just came from Arco and the road was looking great the whole way,” says Norman. “That was enough to select Idaho Falls as the headquarters.”

IF city leaders
Idaho Falls city councilman E.F. McDermott, left, Mayor Tom Sutton, center, and councilman Bill Holden congratulate each other after the Atomic Energy Commission chose Idaho Falls as the headquarters for the NRTS. | Courtesy INL

It was October 1951 when the road was complete, which cost the AEC $1.14 million and the state $337,000. A federal agency contributed another $563,000. In the interim, 90% of the freight was hauled on the road between Arco and Blackfoot, which continued to deteriorate because of the constant flow of traffic.

By 1952, the state managed to pave about 20 miles of the road between Arco and Blackfoot before saying additional federal funding was needed to finish the job or they’d be forced to space it out over the next three years.

“Resentment flared in Blackfoot as the (AEC) seemed to favor the Idaho Falls road at the expense of the Blackfoot road,” the written INL history says. “‘They wined and dined those AEC people,’ accused Blackfoot, hinting of legal lapses.”

The repairs were eventually completed, though not quickly. Officials began planning a new road west from Rexburg to the Terreton and Mud Lake areas while making additional improvements to the Idaho Falls and Blackfoot roads. At the same time, they decided to start busing employees to the site from surrounding towns. This hampered efforts to complete the road projects.

“During the first winter of the new road, drifting snow closed it, forcing employees to go the long way once more,” INL’s written history says.

road from Idaho Falls to desert
The road connecting Idaho Falls to the desert site was officially opened on Oct. 8, 1951. | Courtesy INL

‘Spinning straw into gold’ in Idaho Falls

The fourth floor of the Rogers hotel in downtown Idaho Falls was the original Idaho Operations Office of the AEC headquarters. It eventually moved to the office building on 2nd Street. In 1979, the DOE acquired the Willow Creek Building at 1955 Fremont Avenue to handle administrative functions.

The INL Research Complex at 2351 North Boulevard, which contains labs for materials science, biology, analytical chemistry, nondestructive battery evaluation, autonomous systems and geochemistry, came along in 1984.

The newest building on campus is the Energy Security Research Laboratory at 650 MK Simpson Boulevard, which Norman says isn’t yet occupied.

There are now dozens of buildings on what’s become known as the research education campus.

“When you come here, it has the feel of a university, and there’s a lot of that friendliness here at the in-town facilities,” Norman explains.

energy systems lab
Drone photo of the Energy Systems Laboratory at 750 MK Simpson Boulevard in Idaho Falls. | Courtesy INL

Norman says research in the biotech industry has resulted in some of the most noteworthy accomplishments at the Idaho Falls campus over the years. Inside the Energy Systems Laboratory at 750 MK Simpson Boulevard is the Biomass Feedstock National User Facility. It collects various types of waste from landfills — animal and agricultural waste, plastic, wood, metal and other products — and converts it into something usable, like building materials or aviation fuel.

“I like to say we’re spinning straw into gold,” says Norman.

RELATED | Upgrade of INL facility will help provide clean energy for America’s future

Norman also cites electric vehicle research and other technological innovations as significant achievements in Idaho Falls.

“We have modeling and simulation research. Before you build something big, you can do it on a computer. You put on VR goggles and can see (what your design would look like as if it were right in front of you),” she says.

The future of INL

In the beginning, the construction of nuclear reactors played a pivotal role in research projects at the INL. It’s been nearly 50 years since a reactor has been built at the site. A project aimed at building 12 small modular reactors on U.S. Department of Energy property in the near future was canceled in November. Its purpose was to provide electricity generated by nuclear power for homes throughout the West.

RELATED | A small modular reactor project that would have provided nuclear energy for the local power grid is dead

Though that project is no longer happening, Norman says the construction of nuclear reactors remains a primary focus for the INL going forward.

The MARVEL Reactor project is the first of at least a dozen nuclear reactors that will be built by the end of the decade. It’s slated for completion in early 2025.

“The reactor will be used to help industry partners demonstrate microreactor applications, evaluate systems for remote monitoring, and develop autonomous control technologies for new reactors,” an Oct. 2023 news release about the project says.

MARVEL reactor rendering
A rendering of the MARVEL reactor | Courtesy INL

As the INL celebrates 75 years of operation in eastern Idaho, Norman pays tribute to the men and women who have made the site what it is today. She says it’s a thrill to associate with world-class researchers who are changing the world.

“When I go to the grocery store, the person behind me is a renowned researcher. We’re rubbing shoulders with people who give lectures to thousands of people and are developing cutting-edge technology,” Norman says. “It’s your neighbor right here in Idaho who’s changing the world’s energy future.”