by Britt Aamodt
Roger Ostby was part of what Mo Galvin, Sherburne History Center curator, calls one of the greatest Elk River stories.
For a time, the green lawn that slopes upwards to the Great River Energy plant hosted the first nuclear reactor in rural America. Ostby, 86, was among the original crew to operate the reactor.
The idea for a rural-based reactor ultimately grew out of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech, Ostby said. With the talk, the president tried to allay fears about a nuclear future by taking the focus off weaponry and directing it toward electricity-producing reactors.
At the time, Elk River was getting its power from a coal-based plant run by the Rural Cooperative Power Association. The RCPA was formed, Galvin said, by a group of farmers who realized they could get power more cheaply if they combined their rural electrical plants into one large cooperative.
It was the RCPA that, in 1958, petitioned the Atomic Energy Commission to build a reactor in Elk River. In August of that year, construction began.
The reactor plays a large role in the Sherburne History Center’s ongoing and award-winning Life On The Edge exhibit, which features a section on electric generation in the county.
When the notion of a nuclear reactor came along, Ostby was already an employee of RCPA.
“At the time, I was very ambitious about nuclear power,” he said.
A veteran of World War II, Ostby and six other men, most of them from Elk River, were shuttled out to Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 1960, for nine months of training in nuclear physics.
“I never studied so hard in my life,” he said.
He was leaving behind his wife Hannah, whom he’d met as a student in Elk River, and their young children. Still, this was an opportunity of a lifetime. Hannah understood, he said, “but she wasn’t happy about it.”
While there, his supervisor Don Kettner approached Ostby one day and asked, “Why don’t you study on weekends, too?”
“I said, ‘Don, I’m down here in D.C. I’m studying 40 hours a week. The rest of the time I’m going to go places,” Ostby said, who was able to visit Mount Vernon, among other East Coast landmarks.
The first exam, Ostby received a perfect score, beating his supervisor.
“That was the last time I ever beat Don. That guy dove into the books. But I still came in second,” he said.
The tractor company Allis-Chalmers ran the training course and built the Elk River reactor, which didn’t produce its first nuclear-powered electricity until Aug. 24, 1963. It was fully operational within a year.
Ostby was a relief turbine and reactor operator. He and the men on his crew worked in rotating shifts – midnight to 8 a.m., 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to midnight – with days off to prepare for the next cycle.
They were the first line of defense if anything went wrong with the plant, like the time a pilot snagged one of the power lines crossing the Mississippi.
“All of a sudden all the monitors lit up,” said Ostby. A “fault” had been created, and he and the other operators had to scramble until the fault was corrected.
On days when he was monitoring the reactor, Ostby wore regular work clothes. But for the times when he had to work on the reactor, he was issued special coveralls, gloves and shoe coverings. Afterward, he had to pass through a radioactivity scanner.
He set off the alarms when a tear allowed radiation to seep in his glove. He had to wash his hands and, if necessary, sandpaper his skin, until all traces were gone.
From its beginnings, the Elk River reactor was never meant to replace the conventional coal-burning facility. It was a demonstration model, there to prove the feasibility of a nuclear reactor. So when small leaks were discovered in the late 1960s, the AEC decided to dismantle it, a process that was completed in 1974.
But you could still get your coffee at the Atom Café in downtown Elk River, and Ostby still had his memories.
“I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything,” he said.
Life on the Edge
Learn how Elk River got the first nuclear reactor in rural America at the Sherburne History Center’s exhibit Life On The Edge.
The center is located at 10775 27th Ave. S.E. in Becker. For more information, call 763-261-4433.