Inside EBR-I: How a group of scientists changed the world and brought a U.S. president to eastern Idaho - East Idaho News

Inside EBR-I: How a group of scientists changed the world and brought a U.S. president to eastern Idaho

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Walter Zinn and the group of scientists who used electricity generated from EBR-I to power light bulbs. Watch reporter Nate Eaton’s tour of the reactor in the video player above. | Photo courtesy INL

EDITOR’S NOTE: is working with the Idaho National Laboratory this year 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 — It was Aug. 26, 1966, and President Lyndon Johnson was in Butte County.

Standing in front of 15,000 people, Johnson, the only United States president who has visited INL, designated the Experimental Breeder Reactor I a national historic landmark.

Lyndon Johnson EBR-I
President Lyndon Johnson designated the Experimental Breeder Reactor I a national historic landmark. | Courtesy INL

“On this very spot, the United States produced the world’s first electricity from nuclear energy,” Johnson said. “We have come to a place today where hope was born that man would do more with his discovery than unleash destruction in its wake. This energy is to propel the machines of progress.”

Nearly 60 years later, people are still fascinated by what happened at EBR-I. Last year, over 15,000 visitors from all over the world walked through the building.

Experimental Breeder Reactor I is located 50 miles west of Idaho Falls. | Jordan Wood,

“Scientists came here, built this facility and did two primary things: breed a new kind of nuclear fuel in the form of plutonium and create the first usable amounts of electricity from atomic power,” says INL tour guide Liza Raley.

The discovery

On a cold winter day in 1951, Walter Zinn and a group of scientists met in a small nuclear reactor 50 miles west of Idaho Falls to conduct an experiment.

They had started working on the reactor two years earlier, and Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their height. The Soviets believed everything the United States did with nuclear power was about weapons, but Zinn and his team were about to prove them wrong.

On Dec. 20, 1951, the group lit up four light bulbs using electricity generated from the reactor. The next day, they lit up the entire building.

light bulbs again
These light bulbs were lit up using electricity generated from EBR-I. | Courtesy INL

“It was a big deal,” Jess Gehin, associate lab director for nuclear science, tells “I’ve got a copy at home of the New York Times, and it was on the front page with the information they could share. It was still sensitive information, but it was a huge breakthrough in just a short period of time.”

This breakthrough meant atomic energy could be used beyond war and in everyday situations. Those at EBR-I that day wrote their names on a chalkboard, which still hangs in place today.

chalk board EBR-I
Scientists at EBR-I the day light bulbs were lit wrote their names on a chalkboard, which still hangs in place today. | Courtesy INL

“It was huge. It was the first reactor for the national reactor test site that ultimately tested 52 reactors in range and designs,” Gehin explains. “The only reactors operating before that were the Manhattan Project reactors and a few small experimental reactors.”

The scientists continued to work on EBR-I and made advancements in technology. Four years later, in 1955, electricity from the BORAX-III reactor, about a half a mile away, was used to light the entire city of Arco.

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“The east Idaho desert is the birthplace of nuclear energy – the cleanest, safest carbon-free energy available,” Raley says. “It all started here in the backyard of east Idaho in 892 square miles of the Idaho desert.”

The future

EBR-I was operational until 1964 when it was shut down. Johnson visited two years later, and the reactor has been open for tours ever since.

“We have people on staff to make sure it stays preserved so when you come here, you get to see the way it was,” Raley explains.

That includes the original handwriting on bricks from scientists hard at work, a hot cell, where testing was done on material, and a control panel complete with buttons, gauges and levers.

control panel EBR-I
The control panel at EBR-I. | Jordan Wood,

“The control panel is not too different from what you’ll find in a reactor today operating all over the U.S.” says project researcher Jon Grams. “This reactor is incredibly historic. It’s the first reactor to actually produce usable power, it’s the first breeder reactor, and it really was the starting point for experimental reactors here at the lab.”

EBR-I is open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and tours are free. The public is invited to visit and interns are on hand to answer questions.

“You definitely need to come out here. It’s an amazing place,” Grams says.