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
iStock
arrow
technology
AI Could Help Scientists Detect Earthquakes More Effectively
iStock
iStock

Thanks in part to the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, earthquakes are becoming more frequent in the U.S. Even though it doesn't fall on a fault line, Oklahoma, where gas and oil drilling activity doubled between 2010 and 2013, is now a major earthquake hot spot. As our landscape shifts (literally), our earthquake-detecting technology must evolve to keep up with it. Now, a team of researchers is changing the game with a new system that uses AI to identify seismic activity, Futurism reports.

The team, led by deep learning researcher Thibaut Perol, published the study detailing their new neural network in the journal Science Advances. Dubbed ConvNetQuake, it uses an algorithm to analyze the measurements of ground movements, a.k.a. seismograms, and determines which are small earthquakes and which are just noise. Seismic noise describes the vibrations that are almost constantly running through the ground, either due to wind, traffic, or other activity at surface level. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between noise and legitimate quakes, which is why most detection methods focus on medium and large earthquakes instead of smaller ones.

But better understanding natural and manmade earthquakes means studying them at every level. With ConvNetQuake, that could soon become a reality. After testing the system in Oklahoma, the team reports it detected 17 times more earthquakes than what was recorded by the Oklahoma Geological Survey earthquake catalog.

That level of performance is more than just good news for seismologists studying quakes caused by humans. The technology could be built into current earthquake detection methods set up to alert the public to dangerous disasters. California alone is home to 400 seismic stations waiting for "The Big One." On a smaller scale, there's an app that uses a smartphone's accelerometers to detect tremors and alert the user directly. If earthquake detection methods could sense big earthquakes right as they were beginning using AI, that could afford people more potentially life-saving moments to prepare.

[h/t Futurism]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Medicine
New Peanut Allergy Patch Could Be Coming to Pharmacies This Year
iStock
iStock

About 6 million people in the U.S. and Europe have severe peanut allergies, including more than 2 million children. Now, French biotechnology company DBV Technologies SA has secured an FDA review for its peanut allergy patch, Bloomberg reports.

If approved, the company aims to start selling the Viaskin patch to children afflicted with peanut allergies in the second half of 2018. The FDA's decision comes in spite of the patch's disappointing study results last year, which found the product to be less effective than DBV hoped (though it did receive high marks for safety). The FDA has also granted Viaskin breakthrough-therapy and fast-track designations, which means a faster review process.

DBV's potentially life-saving product is a small disc that is placed on the arm or between the shoulder blades. It works like a vaccine, exposing the wearer's immune system to micro-doses of peanut protein to increase tolerance. It's intended to reduce the chances of having a severe allergic reaction to accidental exposure.

The patch might have competition: Aimmune Therapeutics Inc., which specializes in food allergy treatments, and the drug company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. are working together to develop a cure for peanut allergies.

[h/t Bloomberg]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios