The site now known as the Idaho National Laboratory has long played a key role in the development of the nation's nuclear energy capability. Beginning in the late 1940s when the newly created Atomic Energy Commission went looking for a remote site where it could conduct its proposed reactor experiments, Idaho quickly emerged as strongest of nearly two dozen potential locations.
On land originally set aside as the Naval Proving Grounds and used to test fire relined big guns during World War II, the fledgling AEC established the pioneering National Reactor Testing Station - the forerunner of today's INL - in 1949. The nearest major city to the high desert NRTS was Idaho Falls, some 29 miles to the east.
Almost immediately upon announcement of its testing station siting decision, the AEC began construction. In 1950, work got under way on Experimental Breeder Reactor-I. EBR-I shortly thereafter achieved a historic milestone when on Dec. 20, 1951, it produced usable amounts of electricity from nuclear power for the first time. In 1953, it demonstrated the principle of “breeding” - that a reactor can produce more fuel than it consumes.
The Materials Testing Reactor (1952-1970) was the second reactor built at the NRTS, and it was used to test materials' performance in intense radiation environments. Every reactor designed in the United States has been influenced by the knowledge gained from the MTR.
Other major projects undertaken during these early days included development of the submarine thermal rector, the prototype power plant for the nation's first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, and construction of the Idaho Chemical Processing Plant, used to recover uranium from spent reactor fuel.
The U.S. nuclear Navy “docked” in eastern Idaho's high desert in 1950. For 45 years, it operated a testing facility for thousands of its personnel who went on to command and operate nuclear submarines and surface ships.
The five Boiling Water Reactor Experiment (BORAX) facilities (1953-1963) were designed to pioneer work in boiling water reactors. BORAX-III provided enough nuclear power to light the city of Arco, Idaho, briefly on July 17, 1955.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, more than 40 other, mostly first-of-their-kind reactors were designed, built and operated at the testing station.
With the success of its reactor operations, the Site's future was promising. On Aug. 14, 1974, the NRTS was renamed the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory to reflect its growing potential for conducting research, engineering and experiments in nuclear and non-nuclear projects of national importance. In January 1997, the Site became the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory to more fully acknowledge its expansive environmental management responsibilities.
The early 1970s was an era of unprecedented nuclear safety research at the INL, much of it performed for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Major operating facilities at the time devoted to the effort were the Loss-of-Fluid-Test (LOFT) facility. Semiscale, the Power Burst Facility and the Advanced Test Reactor. LOFT was a scale-model version of a commercial pressurized water power plant built chiefly to explore the effects of loss-of-coolant accidents (LOCAs). Thirty-eight nuclear power tests were conducted on various accident scenarios, including the real accident at Three Mile Island. The INL played a key role in examining fuel. Instrument nozzle and vessel samples from the TMI-2 reactor. Examination results provided key insights to the international community about the potential for vessel failure during this accident.
The Advanced Test Reactor is one of three operable reactors now at the INL. With its unique design and capability to produce extremely high neutron flux, ATR performs studies on the effects of intense radiation on reactor materials, especially fuels. It is able to duplicate the effects of years of radiation in weeks or months. The unique four-leaf-clover core design provides nine main test spaces. Additional smaller test spaces allow even more experiments to be conducted independently. The Advanced Test Reactor is also used for production of important isotopes used in medicine, research and industry.
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