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.

The first Critmass, December 2, 1942

Seventy one years ago — on December 2, 1942, at 3:25 pm — Enrico Fermi and his team achieved the first controlled, man-made, self sustaining chain reaction in a simple reactor. In recognition of that historical event, several of my nuclear colleagues refer to December 2 as “Critmass” (short for critical mass). The first nuclear […]

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JFK’s “Best of the Above” speech at Hanford, WA on September 26, 1963

Almost exactly 50 years ago today, President John F. Kennedy, Jr. visited Hanford, Washington to give a speech about the importance of electrical power and the role that he expected nuclear technology would play in the future. (HT to the TriCity Herald for posting the video provided by the Department of Energy and to Martin […]

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San Onofre steam generators – honest error driven by search for perfection

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), the supplier that sold four new steam generators to Southern California Edison (SCE) for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), has issued a redacted version of its root cause analysis of the u-tube failures that have kept both of the station’s 1100 MWe units shut down since January 31, 2012. […]

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Rockwell’s perspective on the history of nuclear power regulation

Ted Rockwell has been an active participant in the development of nuclear energy production in the United States since the very earliest days of the technology. He started his nuclear career as an engineering troubleshooter in 1943 at the site that is now Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project. He was one of […]

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Ten months to obtain an AEC construction permit

I’m doing a little history reading today and came across a passage worth sharing. The source is Glenn Seaborg’s “The Atomic Energy Commission Under Nixon” St. Martin’s Press, NY 1993 pg 101-102. In December 1965, the management of Northern States Power Company (NSP) reached an internal decisions that a new generating unit in the 500-electrical-megawatt […]

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Atomic Show #191 – 70th Anniversary of CP-1, the First Controlled Fission Chain Reaction

On Sunday, December 2, 2012, I gathered together a group of nuclear professionals to talk about the impact to human history of the construction and operation of Critical Pile 1 (CP-1). That simple assembly of graphite, uranium, and uranium dioxide was built in about 6 weeks. When measurements taken during construction indicated that the system […]

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December 2, 1942 – Two pioneers present at dawn of fission era

In the summer of 2012, Argonne National Laboratory recorded the first hand memories of two members of the group of 49 engineers, scientists and students who were present when mankind first proved that it could control a fission chain reaction. Just imagine – you can watch a very recently recorded account from people who were […]

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Reed College has a nuclear reactor operated by undergraduate liberal arts majors

Reed College is perhaps best known among technologists as the place where Steve Jobs learned about calligraphy – among a number of other useful topics. It is also the only liberal arts college that owns a research reactor that is operated primarily by undergraduates. I hope you enjoyed Will and Norm’s visit to the Reed […]

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Pursuing the unlimited energy dream – history of the Integral Fast Reactor

Note: Len Koch, whose participation in nuclear energy research started in the 1940s, wrote the below open letter to colleagues who are striving to restore interest in the progress that they made in research and development of the Integral Fast Reactor during the period from 1954-1994 the year that President Clinton and Hazel O’Leary, his […]

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Kirk Sorensen – Why didn’t molten salt thorium reactors succeed the first time?

Kirk Sorensen is the founder of Flibe Energy. He has been prospecting in libraries for years to learn more about a path not taken (yet). He is convinced that the way forward for energy in the United States and around the world is the molten salt thorium reactor that can produce an almost unlimited amount […]

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Reflections on the 69th anniversary of anthropogenic sustained nuclear fission

By: Cal Abel (submitted for publication on December 2, 2011, but slightly delayed by an inept editor.) Today marks the 69th anniversary of CP-1 criticality and 54th anniversary of Shippingport criticality. Perhaps with too much time to think I wrote some thoughts and observations about my brief experience with nuclear power. It began in 1996 […]

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