The World’s First Nuclear Power Plant

The first four light bulbs lit with electricity generated from the EBR-1 reactor

On December 20, 1951, Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) became the world’s first electricity-generating nuclear power plant when it produced sufficient electricity to illuminate four 200-watt light bulbs.

The reactor is located in the the state of Idaho between the Idaho Falls and Arco. The construction was designed by Walter Zinn and Enrico Fermi at the Argonne National Laboratory. The famous Italian physicist Fermi became next to his achievements on the projects, known for his contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics. The Argonne National Laboratory was the first of the national laboratories established by the Manhattan Project and there, Fermi was able to continue his work on experimental physics and investigated neutron scattering. When the Manhattan Project was replaced by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947, they accepted the power plant project and two years later, construction work in the the semidesert of Idaho began.

Assembly of the core of Experimental Breeder Reactor I

The project’s objective was the demonstration of power generation and further nuclear research. The reactor’s core was able to be replaced and the coolant circuit as well as the primary and secondary circuit were powered by a liquid sodium-potassium alloy (NaK). The secondary circuit would transfer its energy in a heat exchanger into a water-steam-circuit that was finally able to power a combination of a generator and a turbine.

In August 1951, a first attempt failed because the reactor failed to provide the critical mass. However, the core was reconstructed and in December of the same year, a small amount of electric energy was ‘produced’. On day one, the energy lasted for only four light bulbs, but after a few days the reactor was able to provide the power for several research projects. The until then only theoretically assumed breeding process was achieved in 1953 for the first time.

During its overall runtime, the reactors core was changed four times. The last was called Mark IV and was installed in 1962. It consisted of plutonium and was therefore globally the first reactor, ‘producing’ electrical energy from fission of plutonium and that produced more fuel atoms than consumed. The reactor was closed in 1964 and replaced by the Experimental Breeding Reactor II. Shortly after, the area was announced a National Historic Landmark and can be visited during the summer by the general public.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a talk by Steward Brand, who discussed the question ‘Does the World need Nuclear Energy

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