At exactly 7:30 p.m., the lights went out all over town.
When they flashed back on 20 seconds later, the tiny farming community of Moorpark had entered the Atomic Age and the history books.
On that cool autumn evening 36 years ago, the town of 1,100 became the first in the country to be lighted entirely with nuclear-powered electricity. The date was Nov. 12, 1957.
“Everybody was pretty excited about it,” recalled Barton Miller, Moorpark’s postmaster at the time. “My wife and I drove up on a hill that night so we could see the town all lighted up. We didn’t know what to expect really.”
Two weeks later, more than 20 million viewers tuned in to watch the event as recorded on Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” television program.
Murrow had sent a reporter and a three-man camera crew from New York to capture the beginning of an experiment that lasted only a couple of years--ending when the nuclear power industry lost interest in little Moorpark and turned to larger projects.
“We were more impressed with being on national television than about the event itself,” said Charles Sullenbarger, whose family’s house was one of those shown on television. “I don’t think people really understood what was happening.”
Moorpark today is a city of 30,000, the most affluent of Ventura County’s expanding suburbs. Back then, the town was more of an outpost.
“To me it was a mystery because I didn’t know anything about atomic power, other than it was used for a bomb,” said Ruben Castro, a former Moorpark grocery store owner. “I guess I should have been happy that we were using this warlike energy for peacetime purposes. But it didn’t dawn on me. . . . “
Although proud that their town had been chosen for the hourlong demonstration, residents commented in local news stories how there was no noticeable change in service. Their lights, they said, had simply blinked off, then on again, and continued operating normally.
“It was very undramatic,” recalled James Whitaker, owner of Whitaker’s Hardware. “We were like, ‘Oh, so what.’ The only reason anyone paid any attention was because it was on television.”
Others wondered if Southern California Edison had made the whole thing up for publicity purposes.
In a column titled “Interesting No Doubt, but Partially Phony,” one unimpressed editorial writer denounced the switch-over as nothing more than “hocus pocus.”
“Whether it was indeed 100% current from the atomic reactor plant, as the scenario directed, or the customary blend of juice that is served by Southern California Edison wouldn’t seem to us to make much difference--either one would activate the lamps,” the editor wrote.
But Edison officials considered the Moorpark experiment a milestone, marking the first time that an investor-owned utility had generated and distributed electricity to an entire community from a non-military reactor.
The events of Nov. 12, 1957, officials said, would pave the way for larger commercial reactors to be placed into service around the country, ushering in a new era in the development of atomic energy as an alternative fuel source.
“Scientifically, it was a very successful experiment,” said A.C. Werden Jr., one of Edison’s atomic engineers at the time. “We proved we could do it. We could furnish electricity to a community from a nuclear reactor.”
Although some Moorpark residents dismissed the experiment as a headline-grabbing stunt, others believed there was more to it, that something revolutionary had indeed occurred.
“We thought we were getting in on the ground floor of this new type of power,” said Everett C. Braun, then superintendent of Moorpark High School. “We were quite excited. It was a new thing. . . . It was like the future was now.”
The electricity came from a small nuclear reactor built and operated in the nearby Simi Hills by Atomics International, then a division of North American Aviation. It later became Rockwell International.
During the experiment, the reactor transformed 20,000 kilowatts of nuclear heat into 6,500 kilowatts of electricity, Werden said. “It worked out very well,” he said.
The Moorpark experiment had its beginnings in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, aimed at finding commercial, non-military uses for the new atom-splitting technology.
Throughout the 1950s, the government encouraged electric utilities to promote and develop atomic power as a future energy source that would serve as an alternative to less efficient, more polluting fossil fuels.
By July, 1957, Edison began providing some of its Simi Valley and Moorpark customers with electricity generated from the nuclear plant. But residents were not aware of the experiments that were taking place.
Many workers on the Edison project, such as carpenter and Moorpark resident Tom (Buck) Conner, were kept in the dark.
“We didn’t know what we were working on,” Conner said. “But in those days, construction workers didn’t give a damn about anything. All they cared about was where the party was going to be next Saturday night and who made the best beer.”
Edison gave its Moorpark subscribers only five days notice that their town would be the first in the country to be lighted exclusively with nuclear-generated electricity. As it was, the entire town was lit by atomic power for only an hour, though parts remained hooked up for several years.
The town was chosen because of its proximity to the Santa Susana lab, and because of its size.
When it was over, “there was a feeling around town that the whole thing had been much overrated,” Whitaker said. “It was just a short little zip on TV.”
Still, Whitaker said, when residents look back on the event they understand that Moorpark has its place in history.
“Moorpark is a small town,” he said. “It doesn’t have a great deal of outstanding history. This is one thing it does have.”