Guest Opinions

Fifty years for a nuclear testing ground that was based on an audacious idea

Sean O'Kelly
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 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.”

But the man in the picture, Deslonde deBoisblanc, was 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 desert site. ATR has played a vital role in advancing knowledge about nuclear energy and in ensuring our national security by increasing the effectiveness of America’s nuclear Navy.

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.

While driving a lonely stretch of U.S. 20 one evening, deBoisblanc 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.

His famous clover leaf design makes ATR 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.

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 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.

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 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.

Sean O’Kelly is Idaho National Laboratory’s associate laboratory director at the Advanced Test Reactor Complex.