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Ray Haroldsen stands in front of the EBR-I turbo-generator in June 2008, his 80th birthday. His name is not chalked on the wall behind him because his Q clearance had not yet arrived. He arrived on the job just two weeks later.

Ray Haroldsen was one of the engineers on the Idaho staff of Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) assigned to the Experimental Breeder Reactor and the Borax projects. He was very much involved in the lighting of Arco. About a year ago, he published a book describing the event in some detail along with other events involving the Borax and EBR-I reactors. This is his description of activities surrounding that historic event, along with background and personal observations.

The Lighting of Arco

In this photo, taken in about 1954, Ray Haroldsen, left, stands by the EBR-1 turbo-generator with Jerry Cockerill and Ken Detroit. Cockerill was a graduate of a technical college in upstate New York and Detroit was an ex-Navy nuclear submariner.
Argonne was in charge of the project to light Arco. The Argonne Borax team included about a dozen engineers, physicists and technicians. The lead man was Dr. Walter Zinn, who had been Enrico Fermi’s assistant during the development of the first atomic reactor in Chicago. He directed the activities of several thousand employees as director of the ANL. He was instrumental in the decision to locate the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS) in Idaho. He directed the development and operation of the Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 (EBR-1), which successfully produced the first usable amount of electricity from atomic energy and he was the first president of the American Nuclear Society. Harold Lichtenburger was also part of the original Enrico Fermi team and was director of the Idaho division of ANL. Dr. Joseph Dietrich was the lead physicist on the Borax project and later became president of ANS. All of the Argonne Borax team were a part of the EBR-1 operations staff and had several years’ hands-on experience operating the EBR-1 Power plant.

At that time, Argonne was under the administration of The University of Chicago. In this arrangement, Argonne had total responsibility for everything relating to the Borax and EBR-1 sites, but the lighting of Arco made use of power transmission lines that were outside the jurisdiction of Argonne. The maintenance of the power transmission lines within the boundaries of the NRTS – including the 2.5 miles of transmission line from the Borax site to the Central Facilities Area of the NRTS – was a responsibility of the prime NRTS contractor, which at that time was the Phillips Petroleum Co. The actual maintenance of the 2.5-mile transmission from the Borax site was under the direction of a Phillips Petroleum team led by John Yeates. This team performed some very complex maneuvers on the 2.5-mile transmission line and connecting transformers to complete the connections necessary to light Arco. The lighting of Arco could not have succeeded without their help.

The first attempt to light Arco failed and also caused the failure of the transmission line. Some seven pole lengths of the transmission line came crashing down to the ground. This failure was actually caused by an ill-conceived, complicated and inadequate plan for connecting the 2,300-volt Borax generator, by way of the 12,000-volt transmission line, from the Borax site to Central Facilities. The obvious and logical plan for making this connection would have been the addition of a transformer between the Borax generator and the transmission line to convert the 2,300-volt output of the generator to the 12,000-volt transmission line. Our Argonne team was told that this would have been the plan except that there was no such transformer available west of the Mississippi. It turned out later that there was such a transformer available and that it was located only 2.5 miles away in the NRTS Central Facilities storage compound.

Headline from the Arco Advertiser from Aug. 12, 1955.
Here is an outline of how that plan was supposed to have worked. The Borax generator voltage would be stepped down through a 480-volt step down transformer and stepped back up through another existing transformer to 12,000 volts connected to the transmission line. The synchronizing circuit breaker was to be placed in the 480-volt connection between the step down and step up transformers. This breaker was the one to be used to synchronize and make the connection between the Borax power generator and the transmission line. Once this connection was made, the Borax generator would be supplying its own power needs and floating on the transmission line to Central Facilities but lacked sufficient capacity to supply power beyond the local needs.

At this point, the Phillips Petroleum team would disconnect the 12,000-volt transmission line to Central Facilities and make preparations to convert it to 2,300-volt operation. The preparations included interrupting power to the ZPR-III and EBR-1 facilities, bypassing a transformer that powered the facility deep well pump and bypassing all of the fuses connected to the transmission line. The transmission line was then to be connected directly to the output of the Borax generator. The local Utah Power and Light utility supplied the necessary equipment for making the power connections at Central Facilities to the utility power line from Central Facilities to Arco. They also supplied a technician to operate it.

The conversion of the 12,000 volt to 2,300 volts was the most dubious part of the plan. When myself and Bob Wallin, another electrical engineer on the Argonne team, heard about it, we couldn’t believe that they were serious. I was told that it was a decision made by someone in the Idaho Falls office of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The decision involved the part of the project that was outside the responsibility and authority of Argonne. The reduction of the transmission line voltage from 12,000 to 2,300 is a factor of more than 5 which causes the line losses to increase by more than a factor of 5 squared (25 times!). I estimated that the expected power loss would be about 16 watts per foot for the entire length of the line. This complicated, ill-conceived plan was the primary cause of the failure to supply power to Arco on the first try and resulted in the meltdown of the seven pole lengths of the transmission line to Central Facilities.

Ray Haroldsen at the end of the ZPR-III critical assembly on his 80th birthday. He designed the electrical circuitry for the control rods in background.
The first part of the plan was successfully implemented. The reactor was brought up to operating power and the turbo-generator placed in operation. Mike Novick was in control of the turbine, I was at the controls of the generator. Following proper adjustment of turbine speed and generator voltage, Milton Wilkie synchronized and successfully closed the breaker that connected the 2,300-volt Borax power plant via the 480-volt step-down/step-up transformers to the 12,000-volt transmission line. At this point the Borax power plant was supplying only enough power to meet the local needs of the reactor and power plant. The Phillips Petroleum team disconnected the incoming transmission line and reconfigured it to operate at 2,300 volts. This part of the plan was also successful.

The Borax generator was connected directly to the incoming line which re-energized the transmission line at 2,300 volts. The plan then called for the UP&L operator of the temporary substation at Central Facilities to perform the necessary operations to reconnect the 2,300-volt line to the system grid, which included the connections to Central Facilities and Arco. I was receiving directions from him by radio phone for adjusting the generator so that he could complete this part of the plan. He indicated that the voltage that he was seeing at his end of the line was low. I adjusted the generator voltage at my location to the maximum level of 2,700 volts. At this point, the Borax generator was exporting some power to the transmission line.

He continued telling us what he was seeing and what he was doing. As he disconnected the other outside power sources, he announced that the voltage dropped to about 70 percent and that he was aborting the connection. We immediately found ourselves in the dark and the reactor went into automatic shutdown. We had an emergency generator but it failed at the very time we needed it most. We soon learned from the Phillips Petroleum team that several pole lengths of the transmission line had failed.

Our laboratory director, Walter Zinn, was extremely concerned because, without power, the reactor instrumentation was out of service and the reactor was not necessarily in a stable shutdown condition. There was no way to monitor the shutdown condition of the reactor without electric power. He put extreme pressure on the transmission line crew to repair the line as soon as possible. He also initiated some plans in case the transmission line was not back in service within a few hours. Some of these plans were implemented but the transmission line crew worked through the night and succeeded in providing power before the more extreme measures were implemented.

It was very obvious that the failure of the transmission line happened because the reduced line voltage had reduced the line capability to the point of line failure. While the line was being repaired, the temporary substation operator at Central Facilities announced on the radio telephone that he had been wandering through the storage compound at Central Facilities and discovered a transformer that appeared to be exactly what we needed. It would convert the 2,300-volt output of the Borax generator directly to the normal 12,000 volts of the transmission line.

The transformer was quickly hauled to the Borax site and wired in place without being removed from the flatbed trailer. If the existence of those transformers had been known earlier, Arco would have been lighted two days sooner and the transmission line would not have failed. The arrival of the transformers at the Borax site greatly simplified the lighting of Arco, but it was not to happen until still another power failure. This time the power failure was caused by a mistake made by a member of the Phillips Petroleum team. The new transformer connections had been completed, the reactor had been brought up to power, the turbo-generator was in operation and the generator energized ready to supply power. The only thing remaining before making the connections to light Arco was the rotational check to verify that the generator connections were wired correctly.

The rotational check is a standard procedure for making new connections of this type. A mistake in transformer connections can cause the equivalent of phase reverse rotation and make the two systems grossly incompatible. The rotational check had been made without any problem on the first try to supply power to Arco. At that time, the check was made by connecting the terminals of the phase rotation meter across the 480-volt terminals of the synchronizing circuit breaker. After the new transformers were placed in service, the rotational check would have been the same except that the circuit breaker had been relocated outside the turbo-generator building and was now operating at 2,300 instead of 480 volts.

Emergency diesel generator that failed during the first attempt to light Arco.
The phase rotation checks were all made by a member of the Phillips Petroleum team. There are safety considerations when manually connecting the phase rotation meter clip leads onto 480-volt terminals, but this was done successfully on the first attempt to light Arco. With the new transformers connected into the system, the same breaker terminals were, now, energized at 2,300 volts. It is unthinkable to attempt to manually connect clip leads onto 2,300-volt terminals. This problem had been anticipated by the addition of step-down instrument transformers connected to each of the breaker terminals with low voltage leads brought out away from the breaker. The rotational check could be made by connecting the rotation meter to the low-voltage leads, eliminating the need to come near the circuit breaker terminals. Instead, he apparently ignored the low-voltage connections, walked past the safety ribbon provided to indicate danger and proceeded to manually connect the rotation meter clip leads directly onto the 2,300-volt terminals. His meter instantly exploded, peppering his arms with molten particles of metal! He was very lucky. He very well could have been included in the short circuit arc that followed. He was sent to the dispensary for first aid but soon returned to continue working.

The incident caused an arc from phase to phase, causing the breaker at Central Facilities that supplied power to the Borax site, to trip open. The reactor went into another automatic shutdown. Had this incident not happened, the lighting of Arco would have taken place in the middle of the afternoon. Recovery from the incident required several hours, which resulted in the lighting of Arco taking place late in the evening instead of mid-afternoon.

The final and successful attempt to light Arco took place easily without any new complications. The reactor was restarted and brought back to power, the turbine restarted and the generator activated. This time, I performed the synchronizing of the generator and closed the breaker connecting the Borax generator to the transmission line. The steam to the turbine was increased to cause the generator to begin exporting power to the transmission line. It wasn’t until the UP&L substation operator disconnected other connections to the system grid that all the power to Arco came from the Borax power plant. I remember watching the generator load indicator and noting that the power load to Arco was very small compared to the generator capacity.

Ray Haroldsen and two brothers pause in front of the EBR-I building on his 80th birthday. At left is Orvil, a mechanical engineer who worked in the space rocket field. At right is Grant, a chemical engineer who worked at Oak Ridge and later at Argonne on fuel reprocessing. All have advanced engineering degrees. Another brother, not in photo, is a mechanical engineer who worked on the MTR, ETR and ATR reactors.
It could be forgotten that after the successful lighting of Arco, there was still another power failure in which the transmission line from Borax to Central Facilities failed. Terminating the connection to Arco required that the power connection to Arco be resynchronized and reconnected to the area power grid. This reconnection had to be made at Central Facilities which made it the responsibility of the UP&L substation operator. He had a synchroscope but could only control the turbine speed and voltage through verbal communication to us 2.5 miles away. Communication was by Simplex Radio telephone which permitted only one-way conversation at a time. He instructed me at the generator controls on what was needed to get the turbine speed properly adjusted so that he could successfully close the breaker. We made adjustments to a point when the speed of the Borax generator was very nearly the same as the grid. That is, his synchroscope indicator was rotating slowly. He said that he was going to “catch it on the next time around.” That meant that the closure would take place at the proper instant but with the Borax generator rotational speed not quite identical to the system grid. I wanted to tell him that we could make better adjustments but I couldn’t communicate with him while he was talking to me. He made the closure as he said. It was not an abnormal closure. It would have succeeded except that the Borax turbine had a lot of inertia due to the very high mass of the turbine rotor and the transmission line had marginal capacity to quickly exchange sufficient energy between the two systems necessary to lock the two systems together. The connection held for several seconds but the Borax turbine began to slowly oscillate. It held long enough for me to call my boss by phone and describe what was happening. He instructed me to disconnect our generator from the system. It was too late, the transmission line failed again. The Phillips Petroleum team went into action again. The line was repaired and back in operation the next day.

The lighting of Arco was one of a series of significant historical events relating to atomic energy. Members of the Argonne Borax team had the privilege of participating in several of these events. These include the first sustained atomic reaction in Chicago, the first breeder reactor, the first electrical power from atomic energy and the development of the Borax, the first boiling water reactor. The boiling water reactor concept was later commercialized and marketed by the General Electric Co. Many of the commercial nuclear power plants in operation today are boiling water reactors which are direct descendents of the Borax reactor.

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