Arco and Atomic City

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.

Atomic City

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.

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.

Cheap Flights To Idaho

Location on our Idaho Map: Arco | Atomic City

This Post Has 32 Comments

    1. Judy Cavazos

      See them in midland, Texas as well.

  1. Pilerman

    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! 

  2. zdv

    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.

  3. Mike

    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!

    1. Mike 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).

    2. Judy

      This WAS a fun read. Makes me realize how much there is to see on the USA. Your addition, Mike, added a lot. I was wondering about the hill with numbers. I thought maybe it was a small mountain. Of course you have to consider I live on the coast of Texas near Galveston. Born and raised in Houston, Texas near NASA.

  4. b.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.

  5. b.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

  6. J.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.

  7. Tony

    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. 🙂

    1. TJ Fruhwirth

      Tony,Thinking of moving to Arco. Is it a nice community?

      1. Tony

        Hi TJ, sorry I didn’t see this sooner.   Yeah Arco is nice, as is Atomic City (and it’s cheap to buy here). Another town further away that I find nice is Carey.

  8. Dennis Bergendorf

    Nitpicking, to be sure, but the incident that killed the three servicemen was over at the “site,” not in Arco. When I was a kid, we called the big, barren hunk of sagebrush and scrub grass where NRTS (later INEL) was located “the Arco Desert,” and some folks referred to the “site” as Arco, but the two are not the same. 

  9. Bruce Rebro

    Want through there first time 15 years ago. Hair on neck stood up and we adios ed in a hurry. Went through again this July. Place is cleaned up,but still whacked.

  10. Michael

    The SL-1 core melting wasn’t the cause of the deaths and damage, but was one of the consequences of the withdrawal of a control rod faster and further than it should have.  This resulted in the reactor going prompt critical, which caused power and temperature to rise very fast.  The temperature rise cause a pressure spike; essentially a steam explosion and, subsequently, loss of all coolant (water).  The location of SL1 is at this link:,-112.8193689,3364m/data=!3m1!1e3We lived in Arco from 1977 to 1980 when I was stationed as an instructor at one of the US Navy prototype reactor sites at the INEL site.  While Arco was rather remote from other places, we didn’t find it all that “strange.”  But then, again, I don’t nuclear strange or scary or “different.”  I’ve only been working in nuclear power since 1972.  😉 

  11. Carlene Lorance

    We spent the night in Arco this summer on our way to visit Craters of the Moon. We sort of stumbled upon it.  It’s a fascinating area and the town; to say the least.  Though, I being a stranger traveling through this town, felt a deep sadness.  My condolences for your great losses.  Especially BJ Berry.

  12. Brian Rockecharlie

    This is awesome. Took a cross country trip and spent a day in Arco about 10 years ago. This article brings back tons of memories lol. The class years on the rocks overlooking the whole town, Main Street has a little bar that was awesome. I am
    Shocked to read the population was at 1000 though! I remember thinking it was much smaller. Good read!

  13. KSE

    Quibble on “the USA’s only fatal nuclear accident”. There were two deaths from radiation exposure at Los Alamos in the mid-40’s a little less than a year apart, both due to the victim mishandling a plutonium core (the same one in both cases!) and causing a short-lived critical mass event, thereby unleashing a massive and ultimately fatal neutron burst – the two victims of the so-called “Demon Core” were Harry Daghlian in 1945 and Louis Slotin in 1946.

  14. Melissa

    My father worked at the INEEL/ argon. He commuted 2.5 hours each way to work there. (I grew up in Island Park) One time when I was probably 8 or 9 I got to go to work with him. I remember some work spaces had 6 foot sheets of glass seperating the operators from the nuclear materials. There were robots they remote controlled from behind the safety of the glass. Your post brought back alot of childhood memories.

  15. Michael L

    Hi. We passed through both of these towns on our way to South Dakota from Canada’s West Coast. Great photo ops. Atomic City is the greatest name for a retro-future town anywhere. Talked to two of the locals sitting in their front yard, one of whom was sporting two artificial legs. Both friendly and forthcoming with info about the town.
    Off the beaten track as it were it would have made a great setting for an X-Files ep.

  16. Lisav

    I drove through the area a few years ago and thought then how a few thousand immigrants could make a nice community there. It’s a massive, mostly empty area just begging for settlers.

  17. Cathy

    We (family of five) are planning a trip to Craters of the Moon this summer. Any suggestion on where to stay nearby?

    1. Larry

      Has a beautiful tv park.

  18. Dettemc

    We drove through Arco last summer and we loved it there! A bustling little place with a lot of personality in the middle of nowhere. Perfect! Friendly, and happy! We are thinking of retiring there.

  19. Buck nelson

    My grandparents move to Atomic City in 1948 and built a store and gas station station are family came to Atomic City in 1953 and moved in 1966 my father worked on this reactor is an operating engineer I remember the day that this accident happened

  20. Margie

    They also had a navy base out on that site. I lived in Arco for some years and climb the numbers hill on a regular basis. Lots of memories as I was in middle school and high school in the 70’s, .dragging main was an every evening event and the YYC that had games and food ball and stuff for teens to do. Margie (Alt) Titel

  21. Julie Gerren

    My brother-in-law trained at the INEL for his stint on the USS Enterprise in the 1970s. I remember thinking, what is the Navy doing in Idaho. We moved to Idaho 27 years ago but now the Treasure Valley, as it was known, is no longer a treasure to live in with the influx of people from all over the US. Went to Arco in the early 90s but have not been back since. Too old to travel now so I guess I won’t be visiting all those neat spots. My husband worked for the power company in CA before moving to Idaho. He worked at Eureka’s nuclear plant before they shut it down. Very interesting read though and if not so old would like to go back and explore some more. Been to COM before but chasing little guys made it a not so fun trip. Thank you for the history lesson. Well worth the read and the pictures are great.

  22. Bradley (Cooper) Yeates

    My Daddy was the one that threw the breakor suppling nuclear power that lit the town of Arco’s lights. That is until the meltdown and ultimate decommissioning of the nuclear plant around 1963.

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