EBR-1 in Photos

by Will Davis

December 20, 1951 marks an important date in the history of nuclear power; it’s the date on which the first useful electric power was generated by atomic fission.  While the now-famous event at that time only powered four light bulbs, the somewhat stunt-like nature of the day obscured the fact that the plant was actually set up to generate considerably more power, and did so.  Let’s take a look at this fact and, at the same time, the facility through illustrations from my collection and from photographs that I took myself while touring EBR-1 earlier this year.

EBR 1 Will DavisEBR-1 sits in a somewhat remote corner of the already-remote Idaho National Laboratory.  When built at the dawn of the 1950’s, the plant was officially in the National Reactor Testing Station – an area procured to allow the construction of various test reactors which could be operated and even tested to destruction in some cases without impact to the public.  While the whole site is gigantic it’s possible to spot some facilities at a long distance because of the level ground.

EBR 1 plant layout Will DavisThis illustration from my library shows the general layout of this compact plant.  Much of this can be seen today if a tour is made, and a great deal of equipment has been cleaned up and placed on display such as fuel elements.  In order to keep with our theme, take careful note of the turbine generator set seen here (“turbogenerator”) near the top right of this illustration.  It was this machine which generated the electricity to power the famous four light bulbs on December 20, 1951.

EBR 1 generator nameplate Will Davis


Both the steam turbine supplied to the EBR-1 plant and the Elliott generator, whose identification plate is seen here, were rated for a maximum of 300 KW.  The plant output was somewhat less than this as we’ll see in the next illustration.

EBR 1 heat balance Will Davis

This system balance diagram is interesting overall, but look at the turbine generator at the top right; we can see that the net output from the generator was 200 KWe.

EBR 1 sign Will Davis

“All of the electricity now in use in this facility of Argonne National Laboratory is atomic power.”  Even with its modest output the turbine generator set could supply all of the electric power needed in the EBR-1 facility, as was famously announced by this historic sign still in place inside the plant.  Thus, the light bulb “stunt” of December 20 really belied the true capability of the plant to fully power itself.

EBR 1 turbine generator

This modern-day view of the turbine generator at EBR-1 shows the steam turbine portion; the throttle poppet valve actuators are visible on the very top, atop the throttle box.

EBR 1 control room Will Davis

The control room of EBR-1 is completely preserved, giving those who tour a real sense of a step back in time.  The simplicity of the I&C systems of the era is immediately obvious to those familiar with later plants.

EBR 1 recorder Will Davis

Names seen around the plant, such as Leeds & Northrup, are today but distant memories from the early nuclear era.  L&N, who made the SPEEDOMAX recorder seen here, was known for providing complete unitized instrumentation systems for early research and test reactors.  When reactor vendors began to produce their own I&C equipment for their reactors, contractor / supplier companies such as this were edged out.

EBR 1 Scram Will Davis


Our final EBR-1 illustration is the SCRAM button.  EBR-1’s successful operation led to the even more radical EBR-II facility which incorporated not just a reactor but a complete fuel reprocessing facility.  Both of these still stand today, and while EBR-II is off limits EBR-1 can be toured.  It’s worth doing; it’s not just a great historical site, but it’s worth examining to realize that the December 20 lighting of four light bulbs so often pictured wasn’t just some small brief event.  The plant operated for years producing all of its own electric power; truly, it was the first self-sustaining nuclear power plant, and as such was one of the guide posts on the way to truly useful nuclear energy.

Will Davis

Will Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He has been a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he used to write his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar.  His popular Twitter account, @atomicnews is mostly devoted to nuclear energy.  He has an Instagram at @williamdavis5500 but that’s mostly dog photos.


Feel free to leave a constructive remark or question for the author in the comment section below.



13 thoughts on “EBR-1 in Photos


    One thing I forgot in my previous epistle was to tell you that I greatly appreciate and thoroughly enjoy your historical articles.

  2. R. Stuart Bondurant

    Great article. Thanks for writing this.

    Jordan A and others who might be interested,
    if you want to research more technical details on EBR-I, I suggest searching OSTI, if you have not already. It’s here:


    There is lots of great information about these old reactors, often more than is in EDMS (INL document management). For example, check out OSTI document numbers 4080849 or 4076591. All sorts of documents are available, old Conference Papers, ANL Reports, etc. There’s even a video of a EBR-I tour (OSTI 1046044).



    I served on a number of years on the EBR-II safety review committee, and I have always thought that the EBR-I was the first nuclear reactor to generate electricity. However, within the last week, I read an article about the X-10 natural uranium graphite reactor (“X-10 Pile”) at the Oak Ridge National Lab in which there was a photo of Logan Emlet using the reactor to produce steam and generate a small amount electricity to light a bulb using a model Jenson steam turbine and generator.
    Although I was reasonably familiar with the X-10 while attending ORSORT which was located on the X-10 site at ORNL, I had not known of its generation of electricity.
    That link is: https://www.ornl.gov/blog/ornl-reporter/first-nuclear-power
    An excerpt —- “On the latter subject, the next year, in 1948, Logan Emlet, who worked in the X-10 operations organization, suggested two other reactor operators, Mansell Ramsey and Charles Cagle, hook a toy Jensen steam engine to a tube of water that was connected to 10 uranium fuel slugs that were placed inside the Graphite Reactor through one of its ports.

    Graphite Reactor veteran, the late Art Rupp, describes in the ORNL Oral Histories the experiment that resulted in the illumination of a small Christmas tree light bulb.

    Well, Logan, who had charge of the pile operations, and a few of his associates just wanted to demonstrate the production of electricity by the Graphite Reactor, the world’s first continuously operated reactor. After all, everybody had been talking about nuclear power. So, they got the idea of putting an aluminum trombone tube in a graphite stringer and placing it into the reactor. A stringer is a piece of graphite that can be slid into the side of the reactor. The little steam engine was attached to a little device that generates electricity.

    So, the heat from the reactor easily generated some steam to turn the toy engine, producing a small amount of electricity. It was purely a demonstration. Logan, himself, knew that it might come under the heading of a “stunt.”

    But, nevertheless, it was an interesting, very practical demonstration for a lot of people who saw or heard about it. Logan really did make some steam from the reactor, demonstrating the possibility of nuclear power. So, it was not meant to be any kind of a scientific experiment. It was actually just a demonstration of the possibilities in a very graphic way.”

  4. Richard J Dabolt

    Hi Will,
    Thanks for this very interesting article. I didn’t know that the EBR-II had a reprocessing plant. I worked at West Valley during its operating years (1965- 1973) and at the Allied General reprocessing plant (1973-1983) and still have an interest in reprocessing.

  5. David Flomerfelt

    Will, I may have what should be one of the next steps in you in your nuclear plant history. During the decommissioning of San Onofre Unit 1 I found a set of the original construction photos of Uint 1. There were no descriptions on them so I moved them into a Power Point file and added descriptions, they came in handy for locating items during the demolition. Contact me if you are interested. DF

  6. Eric Jelinski

    Excellent. It is really too bad that we did not continue with the fast neutron reactors burning the 99% U238 instead of the moderated reactors burning the <1% U235. Could we not have provided Admiral Hyman Rickover with water cooled reactors for the navy, and kept the fast neutron sodium or metal cooled rectors for on land?

  7. James R Fancher

    (Sorry– inadvertently sent a blank comment)

    I toured EBR-II in the late ’60s: It was a solid, essentially commercial success (power from that facility, about 10 MW, went to Idaho Power). They had one early problem with a sodium break and resultant fire, but the plant operated very successfully without interruption for a long time thereafter. We did get limited access to the integral fuel reprocessing facility, although we did not see all of it.

  8. Rich Gadbois

    Thanks for the look back Will. Very interesting and hope to get out there myself someday.

  9. Jordan A

    What is in your library? I’m proposing a large database to contain, among other things, large amounts of nuclear history in one place (preferably all), and I have not seen such detailed drawings of EBR I anywhere but the actual cite, and I’m at INL! I would love to get it touch with you and compare libraries!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>