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.

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