EBR-1 Marks 60th Anniversary of Electricity from Nuclear Energy

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Sixty years ago today, Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 generated enough electricity to power a string of four light bulbs at what is now the Idaho National Laboratory near Arco.

Reid Cameron, who was one of those pioneers, told me a decade ago they carried flashlights in their pockets just in case the electricity went out the day they started the nuclear power industry. After the lights went on in 1951 Cameron climbed a ladder to write a note on the wall in remembrance of the occasion. He added a fiery cartoon figure breathing out a cloud that has mystified visitors to the reactor since. “I just made it up,” Cameron told me.

Those were heady days for inventors at the INL. In the nuclear world Idaho was the center of the universe in 1951. They build a nuclear submarine prototype on the desert before they launched the Nautilus. “It was an age when everything was right,” Cameron said. “There were no rules.”

However, on November 29, 1955, the reactor at EBR-I suffered a partial meltdown during a coolant flow test. The flow test was trying to determine the cause of unexpected reactor responses to changes in coolant flow. It was subsequently repaired for further experiments, which determined that thermal expansion of the fuel rods and the thick plates supporting the fuel rods was the cause of the unexpected reactor response.

EBR-1 was a small (1 MWt) breeder reactor that used a liquid Sodium-Potassium (NaK) mixture for cooling. The fuel in the second installed core was highly enriched uranium-zirconium alloy.

On November 29, 1955, power oscillations were noted during low core flow conditions. During testing to evaluate the effect on core reactivity with temperature, the temperature rose to 720C. At this point, the uranium metal fuel and stainless steel cladding around the fuel began to interact resulting in melting.

Bowing of the fuel was caused by higher temperatures which, in turn, made the reactor more reactive resulting in more power and a higher temperature.

Other than the fuel melting, no explosion , plant damage, or radiation releases occurred. The core was replaced.

The reactor continued operation until December 1963.

Source: Idaho Statesman

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