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Light bulb powered by atomic fission glows against World of Energy's topographic map reactors.
Light bulb powered by atomic fission glows against World of Energy's topographic map reactors.

The World of Energy

Field review by the editors.

Seneca, South Carolina

"The progress of mankind depends on our ability to harness nature's energy," says a cheerful, disembodied voice in the black light outer-space chamber entrance to The Story of Energy -- the multimedia showpiece of The World of Energy visitor center.

The World of Energy.
Sleepy rural South Carolina: home to what was once the world's largest nuke power plant.

The World of Energy claims to be the longest continually operating nuclear visitor center on the planet. It opened on July 1, 1969, while the Oconee Nuclear Plant was still being built, offering views from its outdoor decks of the construction. When Oconee's third reactor went online in 1974, it became the largest nuclear power plant in the world.

Three Mile Island and the 9/11 terrorist attacks reduced corporate America's appetite for these optimistic atomic showcases. But The World of Energy has survived, partly because Oconee has never had a major problem, and partly because it's tucked into the sleepy northwest corner of South Carolina, far from the frantic attraction turnover of Myrtle Beach.

Nuclear reactor on the right, everyday world on the left, less than four feet away.
Nuclear reactor on the right, everyday world on the left, less than four feet away.

The World of Energy has an auditorium for school demonstrations and a basement archive of vintage nuke plant equipment. Its sunlit lobby features a big rotating globe and a topographic map of the region: press a button and it highlights Oconee's three 19-story-high containment domes. Small displays call attention to the Revigator, a quack medicine dispenser of radioactive water, and Zax, the Duke Power Company's cartoon robot from the 1980s.

The World of Energy.
Plasma globe and kid-friendly ambassador at World of Energy entrance.

But the star attraction is The Story of Energy, a self-guided walk-thru series of "energy chambers" with the labyrinthine layout of a carnival midway Funhouse and gee-whiz appeal of a 1964 NY World's Fair pavilion. The celebration of atomic power is tempered, briefly, with with nods to fossil fuels and wind turbines, but The World of Energy visitor center wasn't built because people wanted to see a coal plant.

Buttons beckon to be pushed, exhibits light up and move, and "Data Loading" handprints trigger flat screen video presentations, delivered over suitably moody or upbeat music. "If everyone was the size of an atom, the entire population of the United States could live inside a walnut shell," says one narrator. "If someone is standing next to you right now, you are being exposed to radiation," says a second. "Pull the switch now to send power down the line!" cheers a third, and when you do, a mesmerizing display of twinkling LEDs burst from a nuclear reactor along an overhead cable.

Fire in a simulated coal furnace. Atomic power is flame-free.
Fire in a simulated coal furnace. Atomic power is flame-free.

And, of course, all of these exhibits are atomic-powered.

Individual displays stick in your memory. The Fission Dance Party exhibit -- our name for it -- had its flashing carpeted atom worn smooth by countless feet. A cutaway model of an Oconee reactor and steam generators resembled a cyborg version of the human reproductive system. The In the Reactor Core display had an actual Oconee fuel assembly, 12 feet high, packed with nearly 50,000 simulated pellets of uranium, poised to descend into a glowing replica of an Oconee nuclear furnace. We learned that the real furnace, only a couple hundred yards away, has eight-inch-thick walls of carbon steel and weighs 805 tons. "Without nuclear power," said another display, "approximately 134 million cars would have to be eliminated to keep U.S. carbon emissions from increasing."

Everything is radioactive, isn't it?
Everything is radioactive, isn't it?

Much of the back end of The Story of Energy is devoted to dispelling fears about radiation in general and Oconee in particular. Exhibits reassure visitors that the plant's containment domes can withstand not only hurricanes, tornados, and floods, but "the substantial force of an airborne attack," and that its security guards "are armed with weapons and equipment to protect against hostile adversary force." The Sources of Radiation Exposure pie chart shows that the nuclear industry is only a tiny slice -- one-half of one percent -- compared to "Medical X-Rays" (11 percent) and "Rocks and Soil" (8 percent). A geiger counter crackles as you wheel it over everyday items such as Potash fertilizer. A touch-screen dares you to pick the item that gives Americans the least radiation exposure in a year -- and if you choose anything other than "nuclear power station" then you haven't been paying attention.

Glowing fuel rods descend into replica nuclear reactor core.
Glowing fuel rods descend into replica nuclear reactor core.

It's a credit to the overstimulating, discombobulating design of The Story of Energy that when you finally reemerge into the lobby, it takes you several seconds to realize that you're back where you started.

No nuclear power plant visitor center is ever going to please everyone, but The World of Energy is so relentlessly optimistic that it could crack the leaden shield of the most devoted anti-nuker. You could fault it for promoting the good things about atomic power while sidestepping the problems, but what do you expect from an attraction built by nuclear plant power company? Anything less than a chain reaction of smiles?

There's no gift shop at The World of Energy, but tourists are welcome to free postcards (views of the nuclear plant) as well as a helpful Emergency Preparedness booklet in case something bad happens at Oconee during your visit. "Hearing a siren," it reassures readers, "does not mean you should evacuate."

The World of Energy

Oconee Nuclear Station

7812 Rochester Hwy, Seneca, SC
Oconee Nuclear Station. Entrance to the nuclear plant is on the east side of SC-130/183, nine miles north of Seneca or nine miles south of Salem. Once inside the entrance, make the first left to go to The World of Energy.
M-F 9-5, Story of Energy last entry at 4:30 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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