Tennessee – Oak Ridge: Still Has Top Secrets

Sometimes we are pushed to explore a place because it almost looks like a map has been drawn pointing us in that direction.  Several things seemed to push us to visit the American Museum of Science & Energy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Of course we had recently visited nearby Clinton and in my writing I made reference to Oak Ridge, but there were other indicators that we should make a visit.

Don received a book from a friend at Christmas, December 1941: 31 Days that Saved America and Changed the World by Craig Shirley.  He had been reading with fascination this day-by-day account of the month when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  The book wasn’t exclusively focused on military accounts of these days.  He learned about the price of bread, current music, automobiles, football scores, etc.  In the evening he would sometimes read a brief excerpt or at least share a few fact-filled nuggets from his reading.

As it happened, we also went to see the movie Midway and learned a lot of screen-version history about the desperate struggle for control of this small island that had such a pivotal role in deciding the winner of World War II.  The movie showed the brash determination of the American Navy to win this battle in spite of the recent loss of much of their fleet and the overwhelming naval and air power of the Japanese.  The death-defying bravery of the navy pilots was remarkable and a real tribute to the men who actually flew those missions. 

And finally, we attended a lecture at the East Tennessee Historical Society on “The correspondence of George C. Marshall and Winston S. Churchill” given by Rachael Yarnell Carson.  Carson is a retired history teacher and the historian at the museum home of George C. Marshall in Lexington, Virginia, and she has written a biography of Marshall.  After studying Marshall for twenty-two years, she says that he is a man of such sterling character that in all that time “he has never let me down.”   

The two men came from distinctly different backgrounds and had profoundly different personalities yet they found a way to work together in the planning and execution of D-Day and other of the most pivotal and decisive battles of WWII.  They also had to keep a global perspective on the war, which was a difficult challenge in light of Hitler’s ongoing bombing of Britain and even more so after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the demand that military attention shift to the war in the Pacific. 

So thus historically primed, the stage was set for us to visit the American Museum of Science & Energy (AMSE) in Oak Ridgeand learn more about the two bombs that were used to bring about the end of the war in the Pacific Theater and to end the loss of lives and destruction being wrought.

Earliest planning for the “Manhattan Project” as it was called actually began in New York City.  Eventually, three sites would be selected for the work: Site X, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was the administrative and military headquarters for the project; Site Y, Los Alamos, New Mexico, for testing and aviation training; and Site W, about 600 acres in Hanford, Washington, which was developed to create plutonium. 

In 1939 land in the Black Oak Ridge area was chosen to become the “Secret City” because it was out of the enemy’s bombing range; it had a mild climate far enough away from any major population centers in case something went wrong.  The area is tucked between the ranges of ridges that lead up to the Great Smoky Mountains to the east and the Cumberland Mountains to the West.

The Clinch River meandered through these beautiful pine- and oak- covered hills with their abundant wildlife.  The river also meant that the site had abundant electrical power (with TVA cooperation), rail connections, and a good-size work force.  The government used condemnation proceedings to purchase about 60,000 acres of land and then evict about 3,000 residents off the site, in many cases with just weeks notice.  War shortages meant that vehicles and tires were in short supply.  This led to even more suffering for many of these families were not only ripped from their homes and farms, but they were forced to leave most of their possessions behind.  Amy Greene’s novel Long Man tells a similar story of how the TVA bought up the vast lands that would become its reservoir system behind the dams that were built to produce electric energy. 

The Army Corps of Engineers brought in workers to build what would become an enormous complex.  The size and scale of this project was so large that it is difficult to conceive, certainly from a physical standpoint.  Oak Ridge ultimately measured about 10 miles by 2 miles overall and the entire perimeter was fenced.  The site was officially named the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW) and had the code name Site X, with Oak Ridge as its postal address until later when it was officially renamed Oak Ridge. 

In September of 1942, General Leslie R. Graves was charged with leading the Manhattan Project.  The United States knew that Adolph Hitler had scientists working on a massively destructive bomb, and Graves was charged with: “producing the world’s first atomic weapon, he oversaw every aspect of the project including scientific research, construction, production, security, and military intelligence, as well as eventual deployment.”

The whole purpose of the Oak Ridge site was to produce the U-235 isotope of uranium through enrichment.  The problem was that this science was so new that no one knew which method of enrichment was most effective, so separate production sites were built and the race was on…both to see which of the processes should be used…as well as the ongoing race against the enemy that was involved in this same research.

Each of the different testing facilities was large to massive with workers using bicycles within some of the buildings to get from one end to another.  The electromagnetic process Y-25 plant had 170 buildings spread over 600 acres [the K-12’s U-Building was the biggest building in the world at the time of its construction]; gaseous diffusion method K-25 needed 44 acres; and thermal diffusion S-50 testing used 160 buildings that were spread across 150 acres (Bradley, 188).  At the same time construction teams built communities for the workers that would soon be arriving.  Streets were named after the states and in alphabetical order and temporary housing mushroomed up seemingly overnight with many of the homes built with “cemestos,” a combination of cement and asbestos. 

The testing went on day and night.  Security was paramount, so information was kept compartmental and few workers knew what the project was.  Only those with the very highest levels of security clearance knew the purpose and the scope of the work.  One friend who grew up in Oak Ridge tells us that for all of his childhood he never knew what his father did for a living…but this was not unusual in this remote, fenced, and guarded world where residents and visitors were stopped at the gates and had to be cleared before they could enter.

Arthur Compton, director of the Metallurgical Laboratory, was responsible for the science behind the plutonium X-10 Graphite Reactor that converted uranium into plutonium.  Test results were monitored on “calutrons” by an enormous workforce made up of women only.  Another former resident whose father worked at a senior level on the project told us that women were used exclusively to operate the calutrons because it was believed that unlike men they wouldn’t fiddle with any of the controls. 

He also talked about the design of the complex with different housing areas, each with its own school, commissary and mini-community filled with lettered blocks of housing units where people were assigned to live in separate blocks, depending on their level of security clearance.  His family lived in the “Cedar Ridge” community (all these areas were named after trees).  They were initially assigned to the “A” section when they first arrived, but they were reassigned up the alphabet into different units with each of his father’s promotions, which also required increased level of security clearances.

On occasion he and his mother would take the “long” 25-mile trip into Knoxville, but the big city was scary with all the tall building and noise…that was also where he had to go up to the fourth floor of one of those building for his dentist appointments.  His mother would sometimes board a bus in Oak Ridge with other women from the community to go shopping in Knoxville.  The government-provided stores within the Oak Ridge community provided for basic necessities, but they were short on fashion goods and Christmas presents.

The experimentation and processes developed at Oak Ridge were ultimately used in “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” (photo of replica above), the two atomic bombs used in 1945 to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  A film at the museum introduced us to the pilot and crew of the Enola Gay, the B-29 plane that dropped the first atomic bomb.  We learned of the training for that flight that took place at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and we listened to the crew talk about the mission and the impact it had on the outcome of the war. 

Suddenly WWII was over and Oak Ridge had served its purpose.  Thousands of workers were released and the future of Oak Ridge was uncertain.  Thousands of now unemployed workers were forced to find jobs and homes elsewhere at the same time that thousands of military troops were returning home from the war.  The population of Oak Ridge went from about 75,000 to under 30,000 and the future of the town with its massive experimental complex was uncertain.  How could this work translate into peaceful purposes?

Initially, the nuclear buildup during the Cold War kept operations running and security tight.  Thankfully, the nuclear weapon stockpiling is over and there are now fewer bombs in existence.    

After the war the Oak Ridge facility was renamed Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and purposed with applying “expertise in advanced materials, supercomputing, neutrons, and nuclear science to national priorities in energy, security, and scientific discovery.”  With nuclear power and propulsion as a priority they made great strides and in 1952 ORNL research led to the first download of nuclear-generated electricity to a power grid. 

The first U.S. Naval ship began using nuclear power for propulsion in 1954.  Over the years the technology has advanced and highly enriched uranium is no longer being used.  Low-enriched uranium is now the alternative fuel source that is supplying 80% of the power running all of the U.S. Navy’s submarines and aircraft carriers.  An interesting fact we learned is that the U.S. has even purchased decommissioned bombs from the U.S.S.R. and their nuclear materials have been converted and reused to meet power demands.

In 1971 there were 22 active nuclear plants that produced 2.4% of U.S. electricity, and today there are around 100 plants producing more than 20% of U.S. electricity.  The two of the newest nuclear reactors, Watts Bar in Tennessee and Vogtle in Waynesboro, Georgia (opened 2016 and 2018 respectively), are both using new, cleaner and safer nuclear technology.

Regretfully, at the time of Oak Ridge’s development there was insufficient information available as to the dangers and hazards of handling uranium and other materials involved in atomic and nuclear testing and production.  Since 1950 however, reactor operations and safety have become key concerns for ORNL as well as the development of systems for cleaning up the environment. 

They have been learning first-hand about environmental restoration as they have been and will continue to be cleaning up their own massive land area that was compromised over the years.  Older reactors had to be deactivated and disassembled as did testing and storage facilities, and even the soil beneath these structures is being cleaned.  The hastily built housing, with its asbestos and cement walls, has been properly destroyed. 

ORNL has been instrumental in organizing and participating in international conferences and activities to encourage peaceful uses of atomic power.  In 1955 the first such conference was held in Switzerland.  In 1966 ORNL wrote the code for nuclear safe facilities, and the processes and technology they have developed for environmental restoration and remediation are being shared worldwide to help in other countries and to serve as guidelines in contaminant emergencies. 

ORNL is also a leader in environmental and biological research.   They are studying the ecosystem and the balance between plants, animals and other organisms.  One technique they are employing is the use of environmental sensors that are being installed around the world and are read by passing satellites.  This information is being used to study the impact climate and weather conditions are having on plants and materials.  

Closer to home, 250 acres of cleared, pre-WWII farm land that was part of the Manhattan Project was gifted to the University of Tennessee in 1961.  The purpose of this gift was to develop and study techniques and identify plants that are effective in reclaiming land that has been strip mined.  They are also bringing in plants from around the world to see which ones do well in this environment and those that will attract appropriate wildlife.  The UT Arboretum is open weekdays and is a marvelous wooded setting for a refreshing walk in the woods and a break from all this technology. 

A vast amount has been learned over these years and that knowledge and technology have resulted in tremendous strides in genetics and human biology.   Some of these discoveries have led to the medical isotopes that are being produced and supplied to hospitals; bone marrow study and transplant testing; and in vitro fertilization…not to mention all that has been learned about DNA.  ORNL isotope reactors have been used on a wide variety of testing and even a better understanding of history.  A newly developed test determined that President Zachary Taylor’s death was not the result of arsenic poisoning, as had long been speculated, but rather he died from natural causes.

All of this work takes a lot of computation and ORNL houses the world’s largest supercomputer to keep up with these tasks.  This state-of the art science and energy research facility works with NASA and one offshoot of that cooperation has led to new materials with better high-temperature properties.  Oak Ridge is now the U.S. headquarters of an international team that is working to develop fusion energy, a future source of cleaner and less costly energy. 

But what is the use of a supercomputer if you can’t have a little fun.  The body of the 1952 Willys Jeep was printed in less than two weeks from design to complete model using 3-D technology that was developed at Oak Ridge. 

Although Oak Ridge still holds its share of secrets, it is a vibrant and diverse community today.  Its residents are highly educated and come from across the U.S. as well as from around the globe.   The community continues to support its symphony (the first symphony organized in Tennessee) as well as an art center, a civic ballet company and a playhouse that dates back to WWII.  Its Appalachian roots are also present at the nearby Museum of Appalachia, a 70-acre pioneer village where the folk songs of those early settlers are still sung in memory and celebration of traditions are being kept alive in spite of so many technological advances.

Note: I’d like to offer a special thanks to Gabriella Bulahan for helping me with details I overlooked during our visit to AMSE and her helpful suggestions as to additional opportunities to participate in upcoming events.   

FOR MORE ADVENTURE: We continue our travels up to the northeast point of Tennessee to Cumberland Gap and also to Rugby, the utopian town created for the second sons of English aristocrats.

2 thoughts on “Tennessee – Oak Ridge: Still Has Top Secrets

  1. Nice job with this post! The selection of the pictures perfectly illustrated your point and tied everything together. Congratulations on a job well done.

    Snowflake

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  2. Once again, thanks Toni! Fascinating stuff that I had absolutely no idea of. I belong to a non-fiction book group that in between the months of our non-fiction books, we hear about some lesser-known presidents and this past Wednesday we discussed Andrew Johnson, mainly known about for having been impeached. Well! Turns out he spent much time in Tennessee and his house is in Greeneville. Have you visited it? His birth and childhood even ressembles that of Lincoln – curious. Alice

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