Arco -- First Atomic City

Arco had most intimate connections with First Atomic Lighting

The short statement that covers the history of the origin of the statement so boldly proclaimed with the lighted sign that has long been one of the “claims to fame” of our small community, simply states “ARCO, IDAHO, FIRST CITY IN THE WORLD TO BE LIT BY ATOMIC POWER” Elevation 5320.

There is a lot more to the story.

On December 20, 1951, Arco became the nearest city involved with the first successful development of usable electricity from nuclear energy, when Experimental Breeder Reactor Number 1, (EBR-I) successfully lighted 4 electric light bulbs and became the home of “Atoms for Peace”. The next day, December 21, 1951, sufficient power was generated at Argonne National Laboratories’ EBR-I to power the entire EBR-I building.

However, this was only the beginning.

The simple statement that explains to passing travelers as well as local residents, is “Arco, Idaho became the first city in the world lighted by atomic energy on July 17, 1955. On that date electricity generated by Boiling Water Reactor No. 3 (BORAX-III) was fed over the lines serving Arco, producing approximately 2,000 kilowatts of electrical power for about two hours. The anniversary of this historic event is observed annually in Arco.”

What the story usually does not tell is that the intimate “hands-on” work of making the first lighting of Arco possible involved two well known Arcoites, Zeke Stewart (deceased) and Charles E. Pieper, still an active resident of Arco, and John A. Yeates, Electrical Engineer, Idaho Falls.

In May of this year, while researching history of Arco and the Lost River Valley, Reva Walker of Arco visited with Charles Pieper, and with Martha Koste, the daughter of Zeke Stewart, and came up with the following facts concerning their intimate connection with the first lighting of their home city, and additional facts have been added.

Along with John A. Yeates, Phillips Electrical Engineer; Zeke Stewart, who worked for the Village/City of Arco, was the head electrician on the first lighting project, but suffered a heart attack in June of 1955. Stewart authorized Charles Pieper to be the head electrician . Stewart worked at the EBR-I site when the first electricity was generated. During the period when he was hospitalized, he and Charles Pieper would communicate with each other about the progress of putting the atomic power generated by BORAX-III into the lines which Utah Power used to serve Arco, and the project was successful in lighting Arco on July 17, 1955.

Charles E. Pieper’s experience as an electrician included service as a U.S. Navy Electrician in World War II in the Pacific Theater and in the Korean Conflict. In 1954 he worked in the electrical field at what is now the INL site, starting for the U.S. Navy, Atomic Energy Commission, Atomic Energy Commission and successive contractors.

In July 1955 Pieper was electrical supervisor of electricians responsible for transmitting nuclear generated electricity from the generator at BORAX-III to the Utah Power Co. transformer in the Central Facilities Area. This included switching, synchronizing, transformer connection and repair to transmission lines to light the city of Arco on July 17, 1955. Subsequent to 1955 he served as Branch Manager for the Shop Fabrication and Craft Support Branch in the CFA area, which also included all the power distribution power lines and major sub-stations.

Charles Pieper retired in January, 1981.


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