Sad-ending story of EBR-II told by three of its pioneers

During the period between 1961 and 1994, an extraordinary machine called the Experimental Breeder Reactor 2 (EBR-II) was created and operated in the high desert of Idaho by a team of dedicated, determined, and distinguished people.

In 1986, that machine demonstrated that it could protect itself in the event of a complete loss of flow without scram and a complete loss of heat sink, also without a scram. Those tests were conducted carefully, with an expanded supervisory and operating staff while being witnessed by dozens of internationally respected scientists and engineers.

A few weeks later, at a nuclear power plant behind the Iron Curtain, a small, poorly led operating crew made up of people with little nuclear power plant experience conducted an ill-conceived experiment to see how long the steam turbine at a nuclear plant would keep spinning with enough momentum to supply electricity after the reactor was tripped. Before conducting the turbine momentum test, plant operators inadvertently — or purposely — put the reactor into its most unstable possible state.

That reactor blew up and caught fire. It stole the world’s attention away from the experiments at EBR-II proving that nuclear reactors could be designed to be automatically safe using well-developed physical principles. One result of the attention-getting explosion was to begin a long period of visceral distrust of nuclear energy. In too many cases, the distrust has been extended to all of the people who have devoted their professional lives to understanding, developing, building and operating the technology.

Instead of being reassured by the highly successful, extensively witnessed tests in the open and free United States, the world was subjected to overblown scare stories and dire future predictions as the result of events at a reactor in the opaque, somewhat mysterious world of the Soviet bloc.

Instead of moving steadily towards a future society supplied with virtually unlimited power from emission-free nuclear fission energy, the world has experienced nearly three decades of increasing dependence on natural gas, coal and oil. Those decades have seen periods of incredible transfers of wealth from the world’s energy consumers into the pockets of the world’s fossil fuel producers as people have been told that supplies of low cost fuel were running out.

Fossil fuel exports to European nations frightened away from nuclear energy by the events at Chernobyl have been a primary source of revenue for Russia, the dominant member of the former Soviet union. Control of the world’s fossil fuel markets has been a major source of power, wealth, and conflict with numerous U.S. companies in the hydrocarbon and military equipment industries accumulating substantial, sustained profits.

In 1994, the U.S. Senate — following the lead of Senator John F. Kerry and President Bill Clinton — decided to eliminate all funds for operations and research associated with the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project. The vote was close, only 52 senators, a small majority, voted in favor of removing the funds.

That complete nuclear power plant and fuel cycle project included the EBR-II reactor. During President Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union address, he had characterized the valuable research being conducted on advanced nuclear energy systems as an unnecessary waste of money that should be stopped as part of a program of spending reductions.

Below is a poignant piece of recorded history told by three leading members of the team.

Spoiler alert — you know you are a problem-solving patriot if you are moved by John Sackett’s final soliloquy.

Making a Contribution: The Story of EBR-II (Full Version) from ComDesigns, Inc. on Vimeo.

Note: The above video was recorded not long before EBR-II was demolished. A sadly ironic end of the tale is that the funds for the destruction came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Somehow, it doesn’t seem right that the Department of Energy chose to use funds from a program that was supposedly designed to help America recovery from a terrible recession to destroy a machine that should have been proudly preserved as an inspiration for its prosperous future.

Jerry Cuttler and Mohan Doss add their voices to Calabrese’s challenge to Science Magazine. Rejected – so far.

Yesterday, Atomic Insights published a copy of a letter that Dr. Edward Calabrese sent to Marcia K. McNutt, the Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine. I have obtained permission to publish copies of two related letters addressed to Ms. McNutt, one from Dr. Jerry Cuttler and one from Dr. Mohan Doss. In addition, I have obtained a […]

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Edward Calabrese challenges Science Magazine to right a 59 year-old case of scientific misconduct

Dr. Edward Calabrese shared the below letter to the editor in chief of Science Magazine with several of his professional colleagues. One of them shared it with me. I immediately contacted Dr. Calabrese and obtained his permission to share it with Atomic Insights readers. Dr. Calabrese did not initiate this coverage of his ongoing investigation […]

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Nova’s “Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail”

On July 29, 2015, a week before the August 6 commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, PBS (Public Broadcast System in the US) aired a documentary titled Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail. Unlike many efforts on similar topics, this one is worth watching. More importantly, it is worth recommending […]

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FOE continues promoting fossil fuel by trying to force Diablo Canyon closure

As a literature major during my undergraduate years, I was fascinated by the variety of stories that can be told about the same topic depending on the author’s selected point of view. Here is a brief example. Friends of the Earth (FOE) has a page on its web site titled Shutting down Diablo Canyon. The […]

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Romance of Radium – How did our relationship with radioactive material sour?

Radium glow finale

Note – This post was initially published on February 23, 2013. After attending the ANS President’s Special Session about the way we should communicate about radiation, I thought it would be worth repeating. Sometimes, we need to look outside of our immediate time and place to find “best practices” that we should emulate. Hitting road […]

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Lewis Strauss was no fan of useful atomic energy

Every once in a while, I feel the need to share some of the historical research I’m conducting. This serves multiple purposes; it provides me with an easily searchable log of interesting tidbits and it enables me to continue working on my mission of sharing as much information as I can find about atomic energy […]

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Atomic Show #235 – Energy and Empire by George Gonzales

Energy and Empire cover

Dr. George Gonzales is an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. In 2012, he published a book titled Energy and Empire: The Politics of Nuclear and Solar Power in the United States. In his book, Professor Gonzales recognizes that the development of nuclear energy poses an obvious threat to the continued […]

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Atomic Show #232 – Against the Tide by RADM Dave Oliver

Though it has been more than 30 years since Admiral Rickover finally retired from his position as the head of Naval Reactors, his legacy lives on in the people he directly trained and in the people that those initial Navy nukes trained and led. A new book titled Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and […]

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Rod Adams and Alex Epstein on Power Hour

On Atomic Show #230, I talked with Alex Epstein, the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Some of the things I told Alex during that show intrigued him enough to ask me to be a guest on his Power Hour show. That show has now been published as Power Hour: Rod Adams on […]

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Putting excitement back into nuclear technology development

Josh Freed, Third Way‘s clean energy vice president, has published a thoughtful, graphically enticing Brookings Essay titled Back to the Future: Advanced Nuclear Energy and the Battle Against Climate Change. It focuses on Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie of Transatomic Power, but it also makes it abundantly clear that those two visionary entrepreneurs are examples […]

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