Seventy-five years ago today, on July 1, 1946, the first U.S. national laboratory was chartered with the singular mission of developing the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Now, the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory is one of the nation’s largest science laboratories, working on diverse challenges in energy, climate, science, medicine, and national security.
Argonne has been celebrating its diamond anniversary this week with a series of virtual public events about current and future work at the lab. We’ll take the opportunity to look back at some formative events in Argonne’s history—and the history of nuclear energy.
Early days: A team of Manhattan Project physicists whose work would evolve into Argonne National Laboratory constructed Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction, underneath the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, achieving criticality on December 2, 1942.
After the laboratory was formally chartered in 1946 to conduct “cooperative research in nucleonics,” the laboratory moved to a larger location in Lemont, Ill. It also established a remote location in Idaho, called Argonne-West, to conduct further nuclear research. That campus would become known as Idaho National Laboratory in 2005.
Nearly every commercial reactor in operation today was developed from Argonne research, and research continues today into advanced reactors and fuel-cycle technologies that promise to improve the affordability of nuclear power, enhance the assurance of safety and security, and minimize the discharge of radioactive waste.
Landmark events: Significant events in Argonne’s history and in the development of nuclear science and technology at the lab abound. Here are a select few of the lab’s early accomplishments.
1942: Enrico Fermi’s team produces the world’s first sustained and human-controlled nuclear chain reaction at Chicago Pile 1.
1947: Argonne begins the design of a thermal, water-cooled submarine reactor that would be developed into the Nautilus submarine reactor.
1951: The Experimental Breeder Reactor I, built in Idaho, produced the world’s first nuclear-generated electricity, illuminating a string of four light bulbs.
1954: Chicago Pile 5, a heavy water–cooled reactor, goes critical for the first time.
1955: Arco, Idaho, population 1,200, becomes the world’s first community to have all its electricity provided by nuclear energy. That electricity was generated by Argonne’s BORAX III reactor.
1955: Argonne chemists discovered the elements einsteinium and fermium, elements 99 and 100 on the periodic table.
1956: First criticality of the Experimental Boiling Water Reactor, which was the first-ever prototype for a boiling water reactor power plant and the forerunner of light water reactors operating today.
1963: Argonne researcher Maria Goeppert Mayer shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the nuclear shell model.
1978: The first International Meeting on Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors was convened at Argonne.