When The Axe Man Runs, You Run Faster
“You’ll never be disappointed if you always keep an eye on uncharted territory, where you’ll be challenged and growing and having fun”. Kirstie Alley
We were RV’ing in a convoy with our friends in the US, exploring the country. We called it the ‘Coasts and Canyons Tour’ as we had traveled south along the Pacific coast from Canada. Turning east, we were exploring various National Parks.
Our plan for the day was to find the National Park — Craters of the Lost Moon.
We drove through miles and miles of the countryside near Arco, Idaho, where tall imposing fences bordered both sides of the road. It was an unknown territory. There was no indication on the map as to what secrets lurked on the other side.
At one point, we decided it must be some kind of top-secret research area or a military test zone. Like District 9 or Area 51. It was making me a bit nervous. Not for the likes of this group of Canadian travelers.
Then we saw the sign.
National Monument — EBR-1
I texted my friends, ‘we’re going in’ and made the turn.
It was a fascinating discovery.
We were met by a lovely guide, who led us on a tour of the facility. It soon became apparent that we were in a museum.
The Experimental Breeder Reactor-I Atomic Museum
We had stumbled on the first nuclear power plant.
Technically, it was the first plant that was a breeder reactor, and the first to use plutonium as the fuel to generate electricity.
Back in the day, these scientists were trying to figure out how to use atomic fission to generate electricity. One display showed the light bulbs they were using in the tests.
The controls and displays were from the 1950s, and the building seemed to have been added onto as they figured out what they needed.
One smaller room held a large glass case mounted on a table. It had holes with long sleeves and gloves holding various tongs and built-in grabbers. The scientists would put plutonium in the glass case (very thick glass) and use the ‘arms’ to do experiments and tests on the materials.
When you pulled the arms toward you, they extended behind you, like a pool cue. We could see where the ends of the poles would hit the walls.
They had constructed special bump-outs in the walls to accommodate them.
It was like putting a pool table in a small room, not realizing you would need more space.
At this point, we realized they were truly winging it.
Then we noticed a large panel with a big red button that said SCRAM on it.
Our tour guide explained this was the button they pushed when the plutonium started to react and they had to quickly drop it into the lead-lined container in the floor.
When we asked her why they called it a SCRAM button, here’s what she told us.
The Original Scram Button
Safety Control Rod Axe Man
A long thin rod of cadmium was suspended by a rope, and a strong male physicist stood nearby, holding an axe. When the reaction began to get out of control, the physicist’s job was to cut the rope. The rod would fall into a lead-lined hole which was then sealed, shutting down the reaction.
I am not kidding.
They were playing around with nuclear power.
On December 20, 1951 they generated electricty from atomic energy, becoming the first power plant to achieve that goal.
Female Scientists vs Janitorial Staff
We saw a plaque with the signatures of the scientists that were present on the momentous occasion.
It was interesting to learn that the female scientists were not allowed to sign this plaque but the janitorial staff did. Years later, a group of scientists lobbied to add another plaque with the female scientists’ names on it.
Atomic Powered Airplanes
Outside, there was a huge contraption attached to a train, which was still standing on railway tracks. The entire area was fenced off and covered with caution signs. At various locations on the fence, there were tags to record radiation levels.
They were experimenting with the idea that they could create an engine, powered by atomic energy. They wanted to put it in planes.
They had mounted the engines on trains, to test them.
I could imagine nuclear-powered trains shooting around the surrounding Idaho flatlands.
We eventually made it to Craters of the Moon, but this was a side trip I wouldn’t have missed.
Travel is always better when you choose the unexpected.
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