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Idaho Town Gets Atomic Power and Light

Electricity, produced from nuclear energy, has been used to light and power a town in the United States.

A first-hand account of the lighting of Arco, Idaho

John A. Yeates oversaw the electricity connection for the project in which Arco, Idaho, became the first city in the world to be lit by atomic power. This is a summary description by Yeates, who was the Phillips Petroleum electrical supervisor. He also offers personal observations about his involvement in the project.

John Yeates being interviewed.
John Yeates reflects on the day 54 years ago when a small town in Idaho became the first community to be lit by atomic power, an event that drew worldwide attention when it was announced at an international conference in Switzerland that summer.
There is an old saying that “you never have a second chance to make a first impression.” This was seemingly true in August 1945 when President Harry Truman authorized the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan, with nuclear bombs.

The international opinion which followed was that nuclear power was principally a horrible wartime weapon.

In December 1953, eight years later, five-star general and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower proposed an “Atoms for Peace” program to advertise and initiate usage of such power for many useful and commercial purposes.

To further promote this program, he scheduled an international conference on peaceful uses of atomic energy in Geneva, Switzerland. World leaders from 72 nations were invited. The meeting was scheduled for August 1955.

To accentuate the practicality of the program, he requested that some small city in the U.S. be lighted by nuclear generated power and a film of the event be furnished to show proof at the conference.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) selected the Idaho site, National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS, now INL) because the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) had a record of successful nuclear experiments directed by Dr. Walter Zinn and Harold Lichtenberger at the EBR site. One of these was BORAX III which produced a considerable amount of steam and was now equipped with a steam turbine driven electrical generator rated 3,500 KW with a 2,400-volt 3-phase output (transformed to 480 volts for this special purpose). The turbine and generator had been installed previously by Argonne National Laboratory to permit this special operation.

Also at a distance of approximately 20 miles lay the town of Arco with 1,200 inhabitants. Utah Power Co. served this town with a 44,000-volt power line emanating from the NRTS main substation. If electrical connections could be made from the BORAX generator to Utah Power the project could be accomplished.

The EBR site lay approximately three miles from the NRTS substation and was served with a 12,500-volt power line. This line and the substation were operated by site contractor Phillips Petroleum.

Utah Power provided temporary use of a mobile transformer unit with variable voltage connections which could accept 12,500-volt input and transmit 44,000-volt output to Arco. An old abandoned iron power line could be used for this lightly loaded project.

The AEC Engineering Department presumed that the way to convert BORAX generator power to 12.5 KV would be to feed it backward through EBR supply transformers and several pages of very complicated instructions were issued.

Because of the anticipated time required for the performance plus mailing time of film to Geneva, a mockup of the circuit breaker was filmed with an ANL craftsman closing the control switch handle. The movie crew also filmed Arco one night from a position on a hillside while UP&L “blinked” the city lights from a local switch.

historic photo of Arco being lit
A view from the butte above Arco on the night of July 17, 1955.
The makeup of necessary electrical connections per instructions was attempted by Phillips electricians and linemen. Three or four days of effort were unsuccessful. Also, the electrical crew foreman (an elderly gentleman, D.J. Stewart) entered the hospital with a heart ailment. At this point Mr. Charles Pieper assumed foremanship and J. Yeates was appointed electrical supervisor.

On one brief occasion, Dr. Zinn visited the site. I used the opportunity to ask if I might speak with his engineer, Mr. H. Lichtenberger. Zinn denied my request and added the fateful statement, “We will close the switch.”

After another attempted procedure which involved a minor mishap, need for a better plan was obvious.

In the Phillips storage yard were three large transformers rated for 12.5 KV primary input and variable secondary voltage output including 480 volts. I was aware of their presence and the voltage ratings from previous temporary use. The Phillips Heavy Equipment group responded to my request to load these on a flat bed trailer and park it near the BORAX generator. Using high-voltage insulated cable we connected the primary terminals to the 12.5 KV power line.

Because of concern regarding the serious difficulties to date, the Idaho Operations AEC manager, Allan Johnson, drove to the site to check our progress. He called me by name, asked how we were doing and stated that if anything was needed to let him know. I gave him my assurance.

The phase rotation of power line voltages was checked to correspond to that of the generator. An oil-filled circuit breaker was connected between the two systems. It was furnished with over current relays, a control switch and a synchroscope. The importance of the latter cannot be overemphasized. When two sources of three-phase AC power are to be connected, the frequencies (60 cycle) must be the same and more importantly the sine wave shaped voltages of both sources must superimpose on each other perfectly when the connecting switch is closed. It is well known among power system operators that if such voltage waves do not coincide immense fault currents flow causing tremendous magnetic physical forces in the conductors and generators usually resulting in severe physical damage. The synchroscope indicates when those voltage waves coincide.

With all connections made up, the person designated by ANL to close the switch (circuit breaker) was so notified. He walked up to the control panel and with no hesitation or observing the synchroscope he turned the control handle and closed the breaker. The over current relays responded instantly to open the breaker with a loud bang, all lights went out. An inspection by flashlight of the power line showed seven or more spans of conductors on the ground along with broken pieces of seven cross arms plus insulators.

That night and the next day, Phillips linemen and electricians began replacing cross arms, insulators and restoring conductors in place.

Either one or two days later we were ready for another attempt. At about 10 p.m. on July 17, 1955, all was ready. This time, Mr. Pieper and I checked for correct synchronism of the circuits, Mr. Pieper closed the circuit and power flowed successfully to the Utah substation and thence to Arco.

It is a staggering thought to imagine the embarrassment to President Eisenhower and to the U.S. and AEC if this operation had failed.

(Below is the text from a news release issued on Aug. 12, 1955, by the Atomic Energy Commission. The release was timed to draw attention at a United Nations international atomic energy conference in Geneva, Switzerland.)

P.O. Box 59
Lemont, Illinois

Telephone: Lemont 800 (Argonne)    Friday, 9:00 a.m., C.D.T.
Ext. 558 - 559       August 12, 1955 


Electricity, produced from nuclear energy, has been used to light and power a town in the United States.

Arco city office sign
Arco city office and recreation hall.
Arco, Idaho, became the first community in the Nation to receive its entire supply of power from a nuclear source when, on July 17, 1955, electricity produced in an experimental nuclear power plant operated by Argonne National Laboratory at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s National Reactor Testing Station, twenty miles from Arco, was fed into transmission lines supplying the small town.

When the reactor power was cut in, utility lines supplying conventional power to Arco from the Utah Power and Light Company, were disconnected. The entire community of 1,200 inhabitants then depended solely on nuclear power for more than one hour.

Although the transmission of electricity from the nuclear power plant to Arco was, by prior arrangement, discontinued after the demonstration had been completed, the generation of electricity at the testing station site was continued.

A motion picture record of the demonstration was presented to the United Nations today at the International Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, at Geneva, Switzerland. The United States delegation plans to make the film available during the conference and to representatives of 72 nations in attendance.

The experimental nuclear power plant, known as “Borax”, short for “Boiling Reactor Experiment”, was the subject of a major technical paper presented to the conference August 9 by Dr. Walter H. Zinn, Director of Argonne National Laboratory. The plant, which generates more than 2,000 kilowatts of electricity, was designed and constructed by the Laboratory. Harold V. Lichtenberger, who is a U.S. technical advisor at Geneva, is Director of the Laboratory’s activities at the testing station.

The reactor for the nuclear power plant has been under development by the Laboratory since 1953. An experimental facility for conducting studies of a reactor of this type was constructed at the testing station site in the summer of 1953 and tests on safety and steady state operating characteristics were conducted. The tests were sufficiently encouraging so that additional studies were made in the summer of 1954.

Experience gained during the operation of this reactor warranted the addition of a turbo-generator so that the steam being produced could be converted into a more usable form of energy. This generation plant was placed into operation on June 28, 1955, and the production of electricity is continuing on a routine basis.

The reactor consists of a pressure vessel containing an assemblage of enriched uranium-bearing plates submerged in water, plus a number of neutron-absorbing control rods. The water circulates through the reactor core by natural convection. Steam, produced by the heat created by the fissioning of uranium atoms, is conducted to the 3,500 kilowatt turbo-generator, located in a nearby building.

The simplicity of construction, ease of operation, low cost, and high degree of safety suggest the possibility that this type of small power plant may be suitable for use in remote areas or in conjunction with mining or manufacturing operations.


This announcement is being issued simultaneously by the AEC in Washington, D.C., and by the Idaho Operations Office, AEC, Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Department of energy

DOE Office of Nuclear Energy
DOE-Idaho Office