Arco’s Nuclear Claim to Fame

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on July 4, 2004

Arco, a central Idaho town skirting a sagebrush desert, emblazoned its name in nuclear energy history books nearly 50 years ago. “First city in the world to be lit by atomic power” proclaims the marquee above the town’s Visitors Center.

For about two hours on July 17, 1955, electricity generated at an experimental nuclear power plant 20 miles away at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s National Reactor Testing Station was fed into transmission lines supplying Arco to demonstrate the safety and benefits of producing electricity from nuclear energy.

“I was at the showhouse,” recalls Mayor Carol Jardine, a teenager at the time. “The lights went off briefly, then came back on.”

Later, when she became city clerk for the late Paul “Buddy” Wetherington, who was mayor in 1955, she recalls him telling her that he turned on his electric stove and fried an egg to mark the occasion. “He wanted to be able to say he did something with atomic power,” Jardine says.

Today, townspeople, some of whom work on nuclear reactors and other experimental technologies at the nearby federal research facility—renamed the Idaho National Laboratory (INL)—still take pride in Arco’s nuclear claim to fame and celebrate the historic event with Atomic Days. The two-day festival, scheduled July 17-18, features nuclear exhibits, a parade, rodeo, and softball tournament.

Arco residents are proud, too, that the nation’s most advanced nuclear reactors still continue to be designed nearby at the laboratory. The pioneering research in Idaho has contributed to construction of 104 nuclear power plants licensed nationwide to generate electricity. Those plants provide 20 percent of the nation’s electrical demand, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Because Arco (pop. 1,026) is near INL, “we’ve always had a strong connection with it,” says Arco resident Clay Condit, who retired as a nuclear safety manager at the laboratory’s Naval Reactors Facility in 1992. He estimates 200 Arco residents work at the site, an important facet of the local economy, which is based on ranching and tourism.

The laboratory was established in 1949 when the Atomic Energy Commission chose a former Navy gunnery range sprawling across isolated eastern Idaho as an ideal location for Argonne National Laboratory–West to develop the nation’s fledgling nuclear reactor energy program.

Today, the 890-square-acre laboratory complex has grown to eight major facilities where 5,200 scientists, engineers and other staff work on projects focusing on nuclear energy, the environment and national security.

Since 1949, Argonne researchers have designed and built more than 50 nuclear reactors in Idaho—not only for generating electricity, but also for powering the U.S. Navy’s ships and submarines. “The first nuclear-powered submarine prototype was built at the site,” Condit says.

When Condit and other Arco residents were brainstorming for economic development projects several years ago, they turned to their nuclear heritage. Townspeople persuaded the U.S. Navy to donate the conning tower of a decommissioned nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S.S. Hawkbill, as the hallmark of the Idaho Science Center, an INL history museum and science center that Condit estimates will be built within five years.

The submarine’s 11-foot-tall conning tower, rising in Arco’s Tourist Park beside Highway 26, was dedicated during Atomic Days last year.

To educate the public about nuclear reactors, tours of the laboratory’s most famous reactor are offered—the Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1. Built in 1950, it produced the world’s first usable electricity on Dec. 20, 1951. The reactor, 18 miles from Arco off Highway 26, operated until 1963 and now is a national historic site.

The reactor that produced electricity for Arco in 1955 was eventually dismantled. Yet, its impact is far-reaching. Laboratory researchers are developing the next generation of nuclear reactors to replace those built in the 1970s and 1980s for electrical production.

“Nuclear power is one of the cleanest, most dependable electrical energy sources around,” says resident Martha Koste, 76, who fondly recalls when Arco’s lights flickered with atomic power nearly 50 years ago.