The purpose of the Materials Testing Reactor, completed in 1952, was to study how metals and other materials held up when exposed to radiation for extended periods of time.
But the MTR facility soon picked up another job: irradiating potatoes.
The reactor west of Idaho Falls also tested meat, grain, fruit, drugs, and even diamonds over the years.
In the 1950s, U.S. companies wanted to know if gamma radiation might improve their products. And the U.S. Army was curious whether a radiation treatment might improve food safety and prevent it from spoiling, according to the book “Proving the Principle” by Susan M. Stacy.
The research helped demonstrate that irradiating food is effective. It destroys all sorts of bacteria that might make us sick, and extends shelf life. Yet the practice hasn’t been widely used in the U.S., mainly due to consumer concern: Eating something that’s been “irradiated” doesn’t sound appetizing.
Gamma radiation held all kinds of intrigue in the ’50s and ’60s. (Comic book fans will recognize it as the catalyst for turning Bruce Banner into the Hulk.)
The Gamma Facility where the food research occurred was adjacent to but separate from MTR. It utilized spent fuel from MTR that was cooling off in canals, emitting gamma rays, according to Stacy.
Before MTR closed in 1970, scientists conducted one final test involving pheasants. A few pheasants shot in the 1969 hunting season tested positive for mercury, which is dangerous for human consumption. Nobody knew how widespread the problem might be, Stacy wrote.
So the MTR itself, not the canal, was loaded up with 1,000 samples of pheasant, fish, grasses, mutton, beef and pork taken from around the state. “If mercury was present, neutrons would transform it to a radioactive isotope, which could quickly be identified and measured,” Stacy wrote.
After the test, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game “decided the mercury problem had been localized and temporary,” she wrote. “The pheasant season opened on schedule that fall.”
Just because the MTR closed didn’t mean the dream of using nuclear energy to improve the Idaho agriculture industry was over. Cecil Andrus, elected governor in 1970, had a “nuclear vision for the development of southeast Idaho,” Stacy wrote.
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