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In 1955, the tiny town of Arco, Idaho, became the first community in the ‘free world’ to be powered by nuclear-based electricity. With the power coming from the nearby Experimental Breeder Reactor I, operated by the Nuclear Reactor Testing Station. Over time, the idea of using nuclear power for municipal electricity fell out of favor. But today, at the Idaho National Lab, the leading U.S. Department of Energy nuclear energy research institution, the idea is very much at the forefront, as scientists and policymakers alike search for ways to provide more power while creating less of a carbon footprint.

ARCO, Idaho–On July 17, 1955, this tiny town, which might otherwise have forever escaped notoriety of any kind, was put on the map for a very historic reason: It became the first place in the “free world” to be powered by “electrical energy developed from the atom.”

The power was generated by an experimental reactor run by the nearby National Reactor Testing Station, and the flipping of the switch seemed to usher in a new era for the United States and the world: the nuclear era.

Over time, the U.S. and other countries grew more and more attracted to the idea of nuclear power as a major alternative to fossil fuel-based power. But by the 1980s and early 1990s, the country had lost its appetite for the fuel source. It was seen as dangerous, too closely related to nuclear weapons, and too productive of nuclear waste, and gradually, the number of working nuclear power plants got smaller and smaller. In many places, in fact, the mere mention of nuclear power will draw a dirty stare.

But in Arco, there is still a civic pride associated with the events of 1955, and today, there is a growing national enthusiasm for the idea that back then, in the heart of the Cold War, seemed so novel: turning to nuclear power as a major source of energy.

Photos: Inside a nuclear reactor

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