On November 12, 1957, the small town of Moorpark, California, became the first town in the United States to be entirely powered by electricity generated from a nuclear reactor. At 7:30 PM, the lights went out for all 1100 residents of the rural Ventura County burg; twenty seconds later, when they came on again, history had been made. Local farmers and townspeople, shop owners and newspaper editors, all had different reactions to the new technological marvel. Barton Miller, Moorpark’s postmaster, was “pretty excited”. “My wife and I drove up on a hill that night so we could see the town all lighted up.” Grocery store owner Ruben Castro experienced the event as a “mystery”. He admitted, “I didn’t know anything about atomic power, other than it was used for a bomb. I guess I should have been happy that we were using this warlike energy for peacetime purposes.” Whitaker’s Hardware owner James Whitaker felt let down by the whole event. “It was very undramatic. We were like, ‘Oh, so what.'” An editor of the local newspaper was downright suspicious. He accused the power company of indulging in “hocus-pocus” in a column titled, “Interesting No Doubt, but Partially Phony”.
Credibility and wider interest came with television coverage two weeks later on Edward R. Murrow’s See it Now program. The footage obtained by a New York reporter and three-man camera crew put Moorpark on the map. “We were more impressed with being on national television than about the event itself,” said resident and featured homeowner Charles Sullenbarger.
The Moorpark experiment had originated from President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, which sought commercial uses for the new atom-splitting technology developed for military applications. All through the 1950’s, the federal government encouraged the national power industry to take advantage of nuclear power as a cleaner, more efficient alternative to fossil fuels for generating electricity. Moorpark’s “nuclear-flavored electricity” was generated from a small reactor in nearby Simi Hills, operated by Atomics International, a division of North American Aviation, which eventually became Rockwell International. Southern California Edison transferred the 6500 kilowatts of energy generated by 20,000 kilowatts of nuclear reactor heat to the entire town for only about one hour, although the reactor continued to fill part of the town’s electricity needs for years. “It was a very successful experiment,” A.C. Werden Jr., an Edison engineer explained, “We proved we could do it. We could furnish electricity to a community from a nuclear reactor.”
Hardware-purveyor Whitaker’s slightly humorous, slightly ironic assessment of Moorpark’s scientific milestone illustrated the disconnect that can exist between visionaries and grass-roots folks. “There was a feeling around town that the whole thing had been much overrated,” he explained. “It was just a short little zip on TV.”