Saturday, February 27, 2010

BORAX on the Mind


You know, a big part of me really wished I'd been alive to see this:

Imagine you're driving along U.S. Highway 20 in the middle of the Lost River Desert. The only thing you can see aside from the extinct volcanoes on the southern and eastern horizons and the Lemhi Mountains to the north are vast plains of sage brush and cheatgrass. Suddenly, to the right as you're traveling east, you see something like a geyser shooting water more than a hundred feet in the air.

Only it's not a geyser. It's a nuclear reactor. Technically, it's the BORAX reactor, an experimental reactor that went critical in 1953. The reactor was purposely run through hundreds of tests in which those testing the reactor committed errors from removing control rods to allowing the reactor's water coolant to boil (hence the geysers shooting into the air).

Here's something interesting about those experiments, taken from the book "Proving the Principle" by Susan Stacy:
The results proved correct. In every case, the chain reaction stopped before the aluminum fuel plates became hot enough to melt. It appeared that boiling water reactors might therefore be "inherently" safe; that is, safe because of the way nature took its course, not because automatic controls, machinery, and human judgment operated perfectly one hundred percent of the time.
That, of course, did not prove to be true, as subsequent experiments showed. But it's this kind of experimentation that led scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory to plumb the natural forces of nuclear reaction they sought to understand. They've helped make reactors worldwide safer.

What's fun is that I work about a mile and a half from where all this experimentation took place. Each day, we drive past the little dirt road that wanders off into the rejuvinated sage brush where the reactor (and a handful of other experimental reactors) once stood. Aside form the dirt road and a patch of desert where the sage brush is growing back but isn't as big as what surrounds it (no signs of contamination here, despite the experimentation and excursions which took place here ) there's no way to tell these kinds of tinkerings took place. So I remind myself that there's history out there, as I go to and from work.

The BORAX III reactor, pictured above, was one of those groundbreaking experiments. It was the first nuclear reactor that supplied power to an entire town -- nearby Arco. One of these days, I hope to see a commercial reactor built out in this desert that can supply Idaho Falls and other cities in the area. Maybe someday.

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