CLOSE
YouTube
YouTube

World’s First Nuclear Power Plant is Open for Visitors

YouTube
YouTube

Of the 10 historic landmarks in Idaho, Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 is easily the most unconventional tourist attraction. Located two miles off U.S. Highway 20, the aircraft hangar housing the world’s first nuclear power plant emerges from the largely empty landscape, looking suspiciously like it was never meant to be found. Inside, the EBR-I Atomic Museum waits to share its secrets.

EBR-I made history in December 1951, when scientists at the Idaho National Environmental Engineering Laboratory successfully generated usable electricity from atomic energy for the first time. Their triumph came just two years after the plant’s 1949 establishment by the Atomic Energy Commission, and three years before a Russian plant could replicate theirs on a commercially viable scale. There are actually four nuclear reactors on site, spread out over two acres of land.

Two of the four reactors are prototype nuclear aircraft engines, intended for a vehicle that would need to be “exceptionally large” to contain its massive power source. Classified construction plans mean that the exact specifications of such an aircraft are still under wraps, but engineers laid down a reinforced concrete floor that can withstand 2000 pounds per square foot—just to be safe.

Inside the museum, visitors have the choice to join an official guided tour or to undertake a self-guided stroll around the exhibits. Along the way, they can learn about the basic science underlying the atomic reactions then stand in the very control room that once directed the facility’s operations via an old-school system of switches and levers.

A particular curiosity in the control room is the SCRAM button, which would initiate an emergency shutdown of the reactor that sounds laughably inefficient today. The scientists needed a way to reliably drop a rod of cadmium into the reactor to absorb neutrons in case of a potentially disastrous nuclear reaction, but they lacked any automated system to do it for them. Instead, they dangled the cadmium above the reactor by a rope and assigned “a sturdy young male physicist [to stand] by the rope, holding an axe,” always at the ready in case he needed to swing the axe and avert a nuclear catastrophe. The brawny scientist in question was nicknamed the “Safety Control Rod Axe Man,” or SCRAM for short.

The famed nuclear reactor itself stands at the heart of the museum, where visitors can gaze upon the hole into which the uranium fuel rods were inserted, from behind the thick concrete walls constructed to spare workers from the radiation’s harsh effects. After solemnly considering the potential consequences of something going wrong around such powerful technology, visitors can then move on to a demonstration that almost makes radioactivity fun. Visitors have the opportunity to operate a giant mechanical claw, lifting and manipulating blocks from behind a protective glass wall, mimicking the actions of the 1950s and ‘60s workers tasked with inspecting and fixing radioactive items in what feels like an arcade game.

The latest addition to the Atomic Museum pays homage to EBR-II, EBR-I’s larger and “more capable” successor. For the nuclear skeptics in particular, the EBR-II exhibits highlight the positive developments of modern nuclear science: improved efficiency, the ability to recycle nuclear fuel, and the knowledge necessary to build a safer reactor. That’s not too bad for something located off a dusty highway.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Animals
How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
Getty Images
Getty Images

From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios