Navy personnel stationed in Idaho Falls, Idaho, in the mid 1950s learn how to operate the Nautilus S1W, the prototype of the Navy's first nuclear-powered submarine. | Photo courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory
As one of 10 multi-program national laboratories in the Energy Department complex, Idaho National Laboratory employs thousands of highly-educated, talented scientists and engineers. But many among the research staff share another distinctive background. They are military veterans, with a large contingency coming from the U.S. Navy.
In fact, four of the six executive leaders at INL have a combined total of 80 years of Navy service, including a rear admiral and vice admiral counted among the ranks. And almost 400 employees at the laboratory have served in one of the five military branches during their careers. The story behind this interesting fact began more than six decades ago.
Although some people consider cities like either Annapolis, Md., or San Diego as the modern home of the U.S. Navy, much of what is known today about nuclear-powered vessels began in the deserts of eastern Idaho.
In 1951, a prototype nuclear reactor was built and operated at the National Reactor Testing Station, the precursor to today’s Idaho National Laboratory. The prototype demonstrated for the first time that a small reactor could supply a submarine with electrical power and propulsion over extended periods of time. This momentous accomplishment led to the construction and launching of the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear vessel in the U.S. military fleet, and the construction of additional prototype reactors and control systems that were used as training platforms for thousands of sailors.
For four decades, sailors from across the country rotated in and out of eastern Idaho, spending months learning to operate a nuclear-powered vessel.
Years earlier, in 1943, the Navy had stationed military and civilian workers in the same desert at the Naval Proving Ground to test fire long-range battleship canons and conduct explosive ordnance testing. Not to be left out, the U.S. Army also used the Idaho desert in 1945 to conduct high-altitude bombing techniques by dropping sand-filled practice rounds from B-24 Liberators and B-17 Flying Fortresses.
For some, the days spent in Idaho were long and the winters were tough, but many grew fond of Idaho’s rustic characteristics and breathtaking scenery. The Idaho wonders must have left a lasting impression, as many of those young sailors and soldiers would later return to that very desert inside the Gem State as experienced nuclear operators and military leaders ready to tackle new challenges at what became Idaho National Laboratory (INL).
Today, INL and its more than 4,000 employees are working to ensure the nation’s energy security. As the lead laboratory for nuclear energy research, development, demonstration and deployment, -- and aligned under the Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy -- the laboratory is carrying out the Department’s vision for developing sustainable, carbon-free energy sources.
Through cutting-edge research coupled with unique infrastructure and employee expertise, INL is involved in designing next-generation nuclear power concepts, working to secure the nuclear fuel cycle, and conducing advanced modeling and simulation to improve the safety and efficiency of reactor fuels.
As nuclear power continues to be part of the country’s energy mix, and as new reactors – both small and large – come online, the scientists, engineers and former service members at all of the national laboratories stand ready to lead just as so many have done in the past.