Power is another important theme running through the history of Idaho Falls that combines the people, the river and geology, and the economy of the city.
Since 1900 the City of Idaho Falls has operated an electric generation system, initially using water flowing in a canal. This first power generated by the city was used only for street lights. Three hydroelectric facilities were built on the river in Idaho Falls between 1912 and 1940, two of which were virtually destroyed when the Teton Dam failed in 1976. The Bulb Turbine project replaced these two and a third was added by 1982 to enable the generation of up to 24,000 kilowatts of energy. Along with the Gem State Power Plant, located just south of the Bonneville County line, the total annual generation of electricity is approximately 220 million kilowatt hours, supplying electricity to all within the city limits and at times exported surplus energy. As a result of these power plants, Idaho Falls Power Company’s rate for electricity is lower than any other state in the nation.
Power has also been a primary focus of the Idaho National Laboratory and its predecessors.
While agriculture dominated the business life of Idaho Falls from roughly 1900 to 1950, since then the Idaho National Laboratory has played a major role in the economy of Idaho Falls. Appendix 1 contains a brief history of the INL and its predecessors, and several books have been written that provide a more complete story. How has the INL affected Idaho Falls?
One obvious answer is that the Department of Energy and INL contractors have provided jobs and brought people to town who otherwise wouldn’t have come here to live and work. The Bel Aire subdivision was built in the early 1950’s to provide affordable housing to the first “Site workers.” The rush to build the first facilities on the Site involved over 2,000 construction workers; and the spurt in Idaho Falls population growth in the 1950’s is clearly due to these employees, as well as others who came to work in those facilities once they were built. Employment by INL contractors grew to 5,000 by 1965, and in that year 65% of them lived in Idaho Falls. Three years later, that percentage increased as the Department of Energy decided to move all office personnel into town. By 1990, 3,223 INL employees were working in 22 buildings in Idaho Falls, and of course many others who worked at Site facilities lived in Idaho Falls. Besides DOE and contractor employees, about 39,000 Navy sailors spent from 3 to 6 months in the area from 1953 to 1995, while being trained to operate nuclear submarines at the Naval Reactors Facility. Many lived in Idaho Falls during their training. Recent data from the Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce shows the INL as Idaho Fall’s top employer, with 7,500 employees, followed by School District 91 with 1,700, Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center with 1,311 and Melaleuca with 1,300. So the economic impact of the INL has had on Idaho Falls is obvious, and has been detailed in various studies. But has the Site affected the character or identity of the city? Here’s my opinion.
The early years of the INL (then called the National Reactor Testing Station), even the first two decades, were filled with optimism of nuclear power as the answer to the nation’s energy problems. There was much optimism also in using nuclear power as well to improve areas of national defense – not in bombs but in powering submarines and airplanes and military power installations.
The projects at the site provided much of the knowledge needed to build nuclear reactors and power plants in the United States and the world. In 2014, 100 nuclear reactors were operating in the United States, which produced nearly 20% of the nation’s electricity. As of 2015, 435 reactors were in operation worldwide; France produces 77% of its electricity through nuclear power and a dozen other nations from 30-57%. Whether you are a proponent or an opponent of nuclear power, there’s no question that the work done at the INL was essential in providing the basis for the design and operation of these facilities. So one contribution of the INL to the character of Idaho Falls is that it has brought greater involvement in the needs of the nation and the world. That involvement consisted of resolve and creativity in designing tests to prove theories and then engineer them into useful and safe processes. That sense of mission and purpose, and working to meet challenging national needs, has been infused into the character of the city. One reflection of it is the title of probably the most comprehensive history of the city, Mary Jane Fritzen’s Idaho Falls, City of Destiny. Chapter 20 of that book, written by Ben Plastino, long time Post Register editor and unofficial INL historian, begins: “(The INL) wrote its history in the nuclear and scientific field of unsurpassed achievement.”