It all began with a letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt informing him that German scientists were working on splitting uranium atoms by a process called fission and the possibility of this technology being used in weaponry. Oak Ridge was created in 1942 as the site for the Manhattan Project; a massive wartime effort which produced the fuel for the first atomic weapons.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee is located just under thirty minutes from the Escapees Raccoon Valley RV Park so yesterday Miss Judy and I made our trek over to learn the history of the Secret City.
Our tour began at the American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE). The Museum charges a $5.00 entrance fee which also includes a three our bus tour of the Oak Ridge Complex. You need photo identification and to sign up early as seating is limited.
It takes approximately two hours (two days if you read everything in the history section) for a self guided tour of the museum. The museum consist of a history section and many scientific exhibits which track the history of energy with several of them being “hands on”.
The city, which is approximately 10 miles in length and 2 miles wide encompassing almost 60,000 acres, is located in a valley known as Black Oak Ridge. The population of the valley in 1942 was around 3,000 people when the government began acquiring the property, which consisted primarily of family farms. Within months the residents were moved off the land and fences and gates were erected. The population of this non-existent city grew to 75,000 people in less than two years.
Three major facilities were constructed in the complex. The Y-12 Plant was built to separate the uranium 235 isotope from natural uranium 238 in sufficient quantity and quality to produce fissionable material for atomic weapons. This plant was the first to achieve its goal. One note, it was primarily women who worked in the control rooms being that “Our Boys” were fighting the war.
The K-25 Plant employed 12,000 workers and was built in a U-shaped building measuring half a mile by 1,000 feet covering over 44 acres; it took only ten months to build this facility. The plant was built to separate the uranium 235 isotope from natural uranium 238 using the gaseous diffusion method, a more economical method than utilized at the Y-12 Plant.
The X-10 Plant was the site where a graphite moderated nuclear reactor was constructed for the production of plutonium. This was, by far, the highlight of our day. To see the first operational nuclear reactor in the world up close and personal was awesome, to say the least.
The reactor consists of a huge block of graphite, measuring 24 feet on each side, surrounded by several feet of high-density concrete as a radiation shield. The block is pierced by 1,248 horizontal diamond-shaped channels in which rows of cylindrical uranium slugs are inserted.
Fuel (uranium) pellets were inserted by hand from an elevator that would raise the workers up to the level of the channels. I didn’t fully understand the difference in the rods but, some were round and inserted in the “front” while others were square and inserted from the “side”. I’m sure our friend Mikee could explain all of this to me.
In comparison to today’s standards, the reactor and control room were sparsely outfitted. Today’s control room would definitely have more widgets, meters, buttons, and switches. The plaque below the log book reads: “In this log book the first entry “Critically Reached” was made November 4, 1943 at 5:00 A.M. thus was recorded the initially sustained fission chain reaction in the world’s first continually operating nuclear reactor.”
Original housing, which was built in near proximity of the three facilities, included trailers, dormitories, hutments, and single family dwellings called cementos. Single family homes were constructed in a variety of floor plans. Shopping centers, businesses, and schools were located throughout the complex which created separate neighborhoods. There was a bus system with over 800 buses that took people from home to work and back.
This was, indeed, a Secret City. It didn’t exist on any maps and even the Vice President had no idea of its existence until six months into the project. The facilities did not “build the bomb”, however, they produced the fuel for the bomb. The workers at the three facilities were not even aware of what they were really developing and were just as surprised as the rest of the nation when the “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. After the “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 the Japanese surrendered bringing an end to World War II.
The story of Oak Ridge doesn’t stop there. Today scientific research continues in weaponry as well as many other fields including energy, medicine, computer science, etc.. New facilities are being built and expanded with one of them being the Neutron Spallation Source which is a pioneer in the reasearch of fusion which is far more powerful than fission. But, that’s a topic for another time.
On our way home we stopped of at the Golden Girls restaurant for a nice home cooked style meal and then it was home to our recliners, computers, and television.