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Mormons in Idaho »« Craters of the Moon

Arco and Atomic City

Read About Nuclear Power Here

In 1955, tiny Arco won fame as the world’s first nuclear-powered city. Today, it mainly serves as a jumping-off point for excursions into the nearby Craters of the Moon National Monument. Arco is one of Idaho’s strangest little towns, although nearby Atomic City manages to be even stranger. And littler.

First-City-Atomic-Power

Besides the lava-scorched earth to the south and a range of mountains to the north which include both Idaho’s highest peak (Mt. Borah) and its most awesomely-named (Appendicitis Hill) the most striking feature of Arco is its “Hill of Numbers”. For decades, the senior classes of the local high school have been decorating the nearest mountain with the last two digits of their graduation year. Graffiti on a grand scale.

Arco’s story has been tied to nuclear power ever since our country started experimenting with it. The reason that the government chose this corner of eastern Idaho as one of its nuclear sandboxes is fairly self-evident. Remote and sparsely-populated, Arco is the kind of place that a nuclear accident might go unnoticed. Or at least under-reported. Case in point: did you know that the USA’s only fatal nuclear accident occurred in Arco, Idaho? In 1961, there was a core meltdown in the National Reactor Testing Station which killed three servicemen. [Uncle Sam clutches his chest in mock concern... "Oh, you didn't know about that?"]

Thirty miles to the southeast, Atomic City is even more closely associated to nuclear power than Arco. A ghost-town for all intents and purposes, Atomic City still clings to life with a bustling population of 29. We cruised slowly down the town’s only street and were vaguely creeped out. Although we didn’t see a soul, I was certain that radiation-scarred monsters were watching us hungrily from behind curtained windows, and refused to get out of the car. Jürgen chanced it, for a picture of a trailer that had been designed to look like a boombox.

Giant Idaho Radio
Jürgen, boom-box trailers are how the mutants lure you in!

Close by Atomic City is the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I), a nuclear plant decommissioned in 1964 and today designated as a National Historic Landmark. The world’s first atomic-powered electricity was generated here and, during the summer, you can tour the interior of the plant. It’s supposed to be pretty cool, but we were visiting too late in the year to get inside. Frustrating. There was no one around, and I briefly considered opening a window, but I’m pretty sure that breaking into a nuclear reactor, even a decommissioned one, is the kind of thing that lands you in Guantanamo.

We contented ourselves with examining the prototype reactors from the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion project. This attempt to build nuclear-powered was a failure, abandoned in 1953, but it left behind some marvelous pieces of engineering to admire.

Location on our Idaho Map: Arco | Atomic City

-Cheap Flights To Idaho

Arco-Idaho-Numbers
Cloudy-Arco
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City-Of-Arco-Trash-Can
Submarine-Arco
Arco-Atomic-Bus
Sawtooth-Club
Eating-In-Arco
Arco-Atomic-Burger
Aircraft-Nuclear-Propulsion-project
Double-Reactor
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Radioactive-Keep-Out
Tumble Table
Tumble Boy
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Lost Home
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Hidden Roads Idaho
Snow In Idaho
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Crazy Weather Idaho
Cloudy-Atom

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December 6, 2012 at 11:53 am
9 comments »
  • December 7, 2012 at 1:45 pmKaren Ballard

    I see a fashion trend: Tumbleweed headresses

  • January 3, 2013 at 3:34 pmPilerman

    The tumble weed was a very nice touch! I’ve heard of people taking them home with them because they’d never seen them before. Living in Idaho all my life, I can’t imagine life without seeing them everywhere. Pretty much like sagebrush and Mormon churches, we have plenty! 

  • January 17, 2013 at 4:49 amzdv

    An interesting fact is that the highly radioactive remnants of the SL-1 reactor (America’s first nuclear reactor meltdown) are buried not far from EBR-1.  While I’m not sure where the photo was taken, the gate with the radiation signs above may very well be guarding the burial site.

  • February 5, 2013 at 10:29 pmMike

    This was a fun read for me since I was born and raised in Arco until I was 19.  My dad worked out at the INL for 44 years until he retired a few years ago (and no, neither he or his kids glow:)).  One of my best friend’s dad was the head Park Ranger at the Craters of the Moon for most of my growing up years, so we spent quite a bit of time out there exploring.  I helped my classmates paint our graduation number on the “Number Hill” when we were Seniors and helped whitewash the “Big B” (for Butte County) as a Freshman.  Arco was a much more vibrant community back in the late 70′s, early 80′s when the population was over 1200 (it’s just under 1000 now) and many businesses lined Main St.  The big thing to do as a HS student back then was to “cruise Main” and EVERYONE who was anyone did it.  Glad you were able to experience my awesome little hometown.  Looks like you even had one of the great burgers & tots at Pickles Place.  Arco was a wonderful place to grow up and is filled with a lot of really good people.  Thanks for bringing back a lot of great memories!

    • February 6, 2013 at 7:09 amMike Powell

      Glad you liked the post! We enjoyed Pickles so much, we ate there twice! (It helped that it was right next to our hotel).

  • July 11, 2013 at 8:46 pmb.j. berry

    Grew up here. My husband was killed at the INEL in 1977 and next  husband disabled in 1997. Treated bad in both incidents. Never got a dime for husbands death and received $21,000 for being disabled. Had some one film him going to a yard sale so they took his disability away from him that he paid into for 20 years. Have family still there but driving through the site area makes me sick. To bad they treat the employee’s so bad. My husband that was killed is really tough as his family has never been told of his death. I never met them and to think every day that he is coming home is just really hard. Osha determined it was their fault but a “government” place.

  • July 11, 2013 at 8:48 pmb.j. berry

    You said not to be shy so at least let the truth be printed. It would be nice if a plaque was put out for the 2 young men that lost their lives. BONNIE ALTON BERRY

  • December 3, 2013 at 9:19 pmJ.W.

    I like this page.  With the exception of living in S.C. Idaho for a few of my adult years, I’ve lived in S.E. Idaho, not far from Arco and Atomic City, all my life.  I’ve passed the numbered hill dozens of time and done business with several of the retailers over the years.  My parents worked most of their adult lives for the INEL.  I didn’t tour the site until I was an adult but I remember the clear, sparkling blue water that kept the nuclear rods cool.  Fascinating stuff.  There is a lot of history, even if kept quiet, in S.E. Idaho.

  • January 26, 2014 at 4:55 amTony

    I currently live in Atomic City, just moved there in late December.  Yeah it is quirky here, but the quiet is a great change for me from where I was before. Looking forward to getting out on my street bike this spring/summer and exploring the area more. :)

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