By Dr. Sean O’Kelly
On the wall in my office hangs a picture of what appears to be an ordinary fellow. His short, dark hair is combed back in typical 1960s fashion, and the spectacles, coat and tie he wears give him a decidedly establishment look.
Looking at his picture could lead you to believe that this man was an inside-the-box type, content with that woebegone phrase: “This is how we’ve always done things.”
Nothing great results from: “This is how we’ve always done things.” No invention, discovery, advancement, breakthrough or accomplishment. It’s a precursor to mediocrity and, ultimately, failure.
But, the man in the picture, Deslonde de Boisblanc, was anything but ordinary and in no way content with “This is how we’ve always done things.” Because of that our nation is safer, cleaner and more prosperous.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) operating on the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) desert site. ATR has played a vital role in advancing knowledge about nuclear energy and ensuring our national security by increasing the effectiveness of America’s nuclear Navy.
The ATR creation story is well-known in INL circles, and an inspiration to many: de Boisblanc was a research engineer who came to Idaho from Oklahoma in the 1950s. He didn’t have a Ph.D., or experience designing nuclear reactors. He did, however, possess a creative and agile mind, and a willingness to stand by an idea he knew to be right.
In the early 1960s, as the Cold War was revving up, the Navy’s nuclear fuels were becoming increasingly complex, and they needed a reactor that could test full-scale fuel elements, and achieve results more quickly. The Materials Testing Reactor and Engineering Test Reactor on Idaho’s DOE site had served the Navy – and the nation – well. But something more was needed. The next step. Advancement.
While driving a lonely stretch of Highway 20 one evening, de Boisblanc had an epiphany, an idea that transformed nuclear fuel research, and continues to serve this nation today and will do so for decades to come.
de Boisblanc’s famous clover-leaf design makes ATR truly unique. It allows for the testing of multiple fuels or materials at different power levels in the same reactor. That means we can test fuel for the Navy, a nuclear reactor from South Korea, other national laboratories and a college reactor – all at the same time.
Currently, 95 percent of the reactor’s key research space is either being used or is scheduled for use. ATR has never been more in demand, so much so that INL and DOE are planning experiments at the reactor out to 2050.
ATR’s results have been remarkable. In the 1960s, the Navy had to refuel its submarines about every two years, a costly and time-consuming endeavor. Today, based on what has been learned at ATR, the reactor cores for the subs last their lifetimes, more than 30 years.
de Boisblanc’s creation and the creation of ATR advanced the nuclear Navy and allowed for the evolution of nuclear energy into a power source that today accounts for 19 percent of this nation’s electricity and 63 percent of its carbon-free electricity. ATR is also instrumental in research to develop nuclear fuel for the advanced reactors on our horizon.
ATR also is an experimental proving ground for researchers across the globe that are developing the next generation of nuclear fuels and materials. The Department of Energy provides researchers with no-cost access to ATR and other facilities on a competitive basis through the Nuclear Science User Facilities.
All because one man dared to defy “This is how we’ve always done things.” And also because generations of ATR employees have worked diligently to maintain and improve the world’s leading test reactor.
I feel incredibly fortunate to work at ATR, to be a link in a very long chain that began on a lonely stretch of Highway 20 with an audacious idea. Please join all of us in the ATR family in celebrating the 50th anniversary of this national treasure, and in looking forward to many more decades of important research to our nation.
Dr. Sean O’Kelly is the Associate Laboratory Director, Advanced Test Reactor Complex at Idaho National Laboratory