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Arco Idaho – Gateway to Craters of the Moon and more

We are spending the week in Arco, Idaho. The town founded in the early 1900’s is 15 miles from the entrance to Crater’s of the Moon and is primarily a dying farm town. The small downtown area is very rundown with a large number of closed businesses. We are guessing that the two RV Parks and few motels are the only reason the place still exists.

Arco Mountain Side with HS Grad Years (Tradition Since 1920)

Arco Mountain Side with HS Grad Years (Tradition Since 1920)

What is interesting about this area is the recent history, specifically the recent nuclear history. In the late 40’s early 50’s the US was rapidly expanding research into nuclear energy for military and energy uses. The DOE and military branches were establishing research centers (national laboratories) and sought locations that were remote and met certain other criteria. The state of Idaho bid for the right to house a national lab and eventually beat out contenders like Salt Lake City for the prize.

National Reactor Testing Station (later taken over by Idaho National Engineering Laboratories (INEL)) was established in 1949 to research and develop nuclear based energy systems. There have reportedly been more than 50 nuclear reactors located at this facility. The town of Arco’s claim to fame is that it was the first US city to be powered solely by nuclear power. CNET Article

The reactor that powered the town is designated INL’s BORAX-III. (content removed based upon corrections provided by INEL)

NRTS was the site of the only deadly US nuclear accident. During routine maintenance of SL-1 the reactor super heated the cooling water causing an explosion that killed the 3 operators. The building was so contaminated that rescuers took 3 days to finally get inside and remove the bodies (they are buried in lead lined cement caskets!). The reactor did not melt down, luckily. The reactor core is now buried somewhere near the building. Read More (edited based upon clarifications provided by INEL)

As we looked further into the history we found references to ground water contamination. (most recent info references 2003 – no current water quality reports were referenced) Back in the 50’s they pumped water from the aquifer to cool the reactors; guess where the used water was sent? Yep, back down into the aquifer. We found reports alleging that the water in Arco could contain radioactive elements; needless to say we are on a bottled water diet right now. (referenced information in comments below)

As mentioned at the start of this, the town of Arco appears to be dying. In response the city is taking steps to increase tourism in hopes of bringing business back to the town. On the main highway entrance there is a little park setup to highlight the special link between Arco and the defense of the United States. INEL built many of the nuclear reactors that power our navy subs. A few years ago one of these subs was demolished but the city received the main mast of the sub.


Back in the late 90’s the State of Idaho sued the Federal Government to force them to clean up the contamination at INEL. The state eventually won setting a deadline of 2018 for the complete cleanup of the site. Right now INEL is a leading laboratory for the decommission and cleanup of nuclear by-products. Currently shipments of this material is being sent down the very same highways we will be traveling out of the area link.

All of the above seems pretty scary but what it brings to light is the high cost of nuclear material. The story of Arco was interesting for us in that last year we visited the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas NV; combined with the knowledge gained from that visit it truly paints a different perspective on the whole nuclear topic.

What do you think? Please leave a comment or ask a question using the comment form below…


2 Responses to “Arco Idaho – Gateway to Craters of the Moon and more”

  1. Hello, I work at Idaho National Laboratory and am happy you had the chance to visit Eastern Idaho and learn a little bit about the history of the lab, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. As you note, the site was established in 1949, but it was called the National Reactor Testing Station at that time. It became part of the national laboratory system and was renamed Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL) in 1974. It was renamed again in 2005 when cleanup activities were formally separated from Idaho National Laboratory’s energy technology research, which is helping find solutions to the nation’s energy challenges.

    Although aspects of the site’s history may have struck you as scary, most Eastern Idaho citizens view the lab with pride. As you reference, cleanup work at the site is progressing well ahead of schedule — waste from Cold War-era nuclear weapons production in Colorado and elsewhere is currently being removed from the site and safely shipped every day to a repository in New Mexico. And although 1950s-era environmental management standards did produce some groundwater contamination, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has never found contamination from INL activities that exceeded drinking water standards.

    I’d also like to clarify some information about EBR-I. This reactor generated the first usable amount of electricity from nuclear power, but it did not light Arco, Idaho (INL’s BORAX-III reactor briefly provided electricity for Arco, making it the world’s first reactor to generate municipal nuclear power). Also, EBR-I was not the site of the SL-1 accident (which occurred elsewhere at the National Reactor Testing Station). EBR-I safely demonstrated that a “breeder” reactor can produce more fuel than it consumes. It was declared a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1966 and is open for public tours throughout the summer. We hope you’ll be able to visit it during your next trip to Eastern Idaho.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment on your blog — and please come visit us again.

    Nicole Stricker, Idaho National Laboratory spokesperson

    • admin says:


      Thank you for the additional information and clarification on a few of the points (I will go back through and edit the post accordingly). Information regarding the various reactors, successes, and failures was a bit jumbled even when we spoke with a local shop-keeper in Arco who swore to us that the EBR-I Reactor still produced the power for Arco today :).

      As for the comment regarding contamination of water I was referencing the information found here and here.

      Having grown up in Simi Valley CA I am well aware of the long-term impact of our country’s development of nuclear products. The local hills in Simi were home to the Santa Susana Field Lab run by Rockwell Int. The extent of various testing, successes, and failures, is still under great debate today. Did they test nuclear reactors? Did they have accidents? Is the groundwater there polluted? And in a manner similar to the change from NRTS to INEL the Santa Susana Field Lab went from Rockwell to Boeing further complicating fault, blame, and cleanup management.

      What we did find refreshing in regard to INEL was the rather open nature and amount of information regarding the current situation within the site and obviously with your response the matter is of great importance to everyone involved.

      Thank you for the clarification,