Thursday, July 15, 2010

Oh the places we go . . .

Charlie and I just got back from a western wander, 4500 miles mostly off-interstate.We drove with our heads hanging out the windows, looking for this country's back-stories, those historical places that rate a roadside marker, rather than a billboard.

One such place we passed through was Atomic City, Idaho.

At one time the road to America's nuclear-powered future ran through this town. Its economy was steadily fueled by scientists working at the nearby  Idaho National  Lab. Today the roads leading to the INL (or officially, as of 1997, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Lab) are better and so most of its employees zoom by Atomic City on their way to somewhere else. There remains a small store and a dim bar with, as you can see in Charlie's photograph above, a burned out neon "R," and one motorcycle parked in front. Atomic City also boasts a robust-looking dirt track raceway.

Charlie and I happened to spend the night in nearby Arco, Idaho, on the Thursday before the Saturday celebration of the 55th anniversary of its being the first city in the world to be lit by nuclear power. This led us to take a Friday morning tour of the laboratory which did the lighting (now a National Historic Landmark). There we saw the first Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) to generate electricity from atomic energy. In 1951, ERB-I generated enough power to light four light bulbs, two of which are accounted for, two of which are missing.

Four years later ERB-I powered Arco.

Nuclear science baffles me. The details of what went on back then at the INL baffle me. I was much more interested in getting a sense of the people who worked there at its beginning, and in the lab as the location of their work. Its dials and panels seemed so primitive, like something out of an old sci-fi movie. In the pictures taken in the fifties, there wasn't a hazmat suit (or a woman) in sight. Men worked in shirtsleeves, slinging about materials in a way we would find unconscionably risky now. But those pictures also transmit the excitement and the passion of Walter Zinn,et al., as they worked to unleash nuclear power's peaceful future simply because they believed it had one.

Our guide's favorite anecdote was the alleged derivation of the term "scram," an acronym still used to designate a full-system shutdown in the face of impending nuclear emergency. It stands for Safety Control Rod Ax Man. During early, early Chicago-based tests, the practice became that a man equipped with an ax  was stationed on a balcony within reach of the ropes that suspended the control rods over the nuclear reactor. If something went wrong with the experiment, he was supposed to cut those ropes with his ax, at which point they would fall into the reactor core and shut everything down.

To me, this demonstrates both how primitive nuclear science was at its beginning, and how practical nuclear scientists were. There have been no documented radiation-related health problems in Zinn's crew at the INL.

The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island derailed America's nuclear future. Nuclear power is safe on paper, but once you factor human error and human greed into this field, or any other field (offshore oil drilling for instance), things quickly get risky.

Nuclear power is very much back on the table these days as we try to sort out our country's energy future. We've come a long way in both safety measures and technology since Three Mile Island, not to mention the field's ax-riddled beginnings. But we obviously have not yet learned how to deal with human error and greed--just look at the destruction those character traits have unleashed in the Gulf of Mexico.

I stood out front of Howard Zinn's digs, the lab where nuclear power first produced electricity, and thought about how those scientists did no direct harm to themselves or anyone else with their experiments. But then those people were certainly smart, certainly methodical and careful, and there's no evidence that any of them were looking to get rich.

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