Nothing here but rocks! Hell’s Half Acre is a lava field several thousand years old where lava just oozed out of the ground over two hundred plus acres. Early in the 1800’s on the Snake River Plain in southeastern Idaho, fur traders looking for passage through the Rocky Mountains stumbled upon this rugged land and named it Hell’s Half Acre. That term was commonly used at that time to describe rough land.
There was some plant growth in this desolate region, and it was pretty amazing to walk over an old lava field. Caution had to be used as there were deep fissures to avoid, as well as frequent rattlesnakes. This uninhabited plain looks barren except for a few wild horses, and is the perfect place for the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. Since 1949, more nuclear reactors, over fifty of them, have been built on this plain than anywhere else in the world. The first nuclear power plant was located here just south of Arco, Idaho.
Arco was the first city in the world to be lit by atomic energy way back in 1955. The power was generated by the Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 to a reactor close by, known as the Borax III, located on the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. This was only a temporary solution to their power situation, however, as the reactor suffered a partial meltdown – another world’s first!
Be sure to visit the Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 – Atomic Museum on US 20/26. Here in this block building, EBR-1 became the first power plant to generate electricity from atomic energy. They actually made plutonium-239 in the block building where the museum is now located. Inside you could see four nuclear reactors, remote handling devices for radioactive material, and lots more.
Outside you could view the Heat Transfer Reactor Equipment, which was the engine used to transfer nuclear power to a conventional program. Plans were being considered in 1947 for nuclear power to be used as fuel for planes. Since the runway for take-off needed to be about 15,000 feet, the empty plains nearby seemed the perfect place to locate this facility. But due to advances in conventional aircraft engine design plus public concerns about nuclear reactors flying over their homeland, this project was shelved in 1960.
If interested in the history of nuclear energy, this is an educational stop. The museum is open each Summer and you can either take a self-guided tour or have one of the tour guides fill you in on the importance of EBR-1. Experiments here paved the path for nuclear energy for the entire world and consequently, it is now a National Historic Landmark. See how it all began!
To reach Hell’s Half Acre in Idaho take I-15 to the Blackfoot Rest Area exit 93, which is southwest of Idaho Falls and just five miles east of Blackfoot. Here there is a parking area on both sides of the interstate where you have easy access to two walking trails. You can choose a 1 1/2 mile loop or a longer 4 1/2 mile loop. Both are a little on the rough side though partially paved. The Atomic Museum is located west of here on the south side of U S Highway 26. Arco is just a few miles northwest on U S 20/26. Have an explosive experience!