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.
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…