Fifty Years at ATR: A National Treasure Based on an Audacious Idea

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'KellyDr. Sean O’Kelly is the Associate Laboratory Director, Advanced Test Reactor Complex at Idaho National Laboratory

6 thoughts on “Fifty Years at ATR: A National Treasure Based on an Audacious Idea

  1. Charlie Brooks

    Nice to know you are still alive and kicking, Larry Arnold. I would surrender my eye teeth to boast that I took the ATR critical for the first time. However, I opted to take a day of vacation that day and another operator – Russell Buckland (the next most senior reactor operator on our crew) must take the bow for that.

    It was great to visit ATR (after 15 years of being retired). In particular, I was pleased to see some of my old cohorts and how they have advanced within the organization. ATR was an important part of my own working career.

  2. Steven Atkinson

    I spent most of my 38 years at the INL in reactor engineering and safety for MTR, ETR, and ATR. The unique design of the ATR fuel elements required a lot of testing to refine the design and develop successful fuel analysis methods. Leading those was Merle Griebenow. He was a key contributor to 50 years of accident free operation of the ATR.

  3. Arland MacKinney

    I found the article very interesting as I was not aware the the ATR was still operating. I worked at The Babcock & Wilcox Critical Experiment Laboratory in the late 50’s and early 60s where I made many startups of a “zero” power mock up of the ATR to measure control characteristics and flux distributions. I also had the pleasure of meeting Deslonde de Boisblanc during our program review meetings.

  4. Sean O'Kelly

    We invited ATR retirees back for tours and lunch on the 28th. Charlie Brooks and about 30 people were there. Great stories from the construction and testing days!

  5. Clark Artaud

    Great inspiring article Sean! Happy 50th anniversary to ATR. I’ve done that lonely stretch of highway many times during my Navy Nuclear prototype training at A1W. A lot of us have our roots at INL.

  6. Larry D. Arnold

    Our crew took the ATR to initial criticality in July 1967 – James Carter was the Shift Supervisor and Charlie Brooks was the Reactor Operator. It seems like along time ago.

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