Oak Ridge, Tennessee
It seems an impossible task--seizing the farms and rural homesteads of people living in a 60,000 acre swath of Tennessee hill country, giving the property owners just a couple weeks to evacuate, building a city of over 70,000 from scratch on the seized land, recruiting the people to build and populate it without telling them where they will live or what they will do there--and accomplishing all this in just two years. Thousands of the people here are doing work that directly supports the development of the atomic bomb that will be dropped on Hiroshima, but most of them do not understand the meaning of the dials they are watching and the knobs they are turning in doing their jobs.
They can’t put the pieces together, because they are prohibited from discussing their work with anyone--even a spouse. It is the fifth largest city in Tennessee, with the sixth largest bus fleet in the country and 300 miles of roads and 55 miles of railroads, but it doesn’t appear on any map.
We are disappointed, but should not be surprised, that little of the original city remains. After all, they were putting up prefab houses every 30 minutes, and trailer homes even more quickly. The houses were simple and small. And, despite federal policies prohibiting racial segregation or discrimination, the housing for black people, called “hutments,” were segregated not only by color, but also by gender, were heated by stoves and had no glass windows or indoor plumbing--bath houses were shared by 24 or more people. A reporter for the Chicago Defender, visiting Oak Ridge when its gates were opened at the end of the war, wrote, “It is the first community I have ever seen with slums that were planned. The concept in the back of the planning and operation of this small city is as backward sociologically as its atomic bomb is advanced scientifically.”
Those hovels were surely the first to be ripped down, if they didn’t fall down first.
The T25 Uranium Enrichment Plant, once the largest building in the world-- 44 acres under one roof--was erected by 12,000 workers in less than two years, but sadly, there is no longer any evidence that it ever existed. The nuclear research sites are taking far longer to deconstruct than they took to construct, but many are in the process of being carefully and safely leveled.
We did tour a no longer active graphite reactor, which has not been destroyed, evidently because it was not difficult to make it safe, and it has a very good story. We felt almost as though we were in the scientific version of a shrine. This reactor was the first to:
· Produce small quantities of plutonium used in developing a nuclear weapon (the bomb dropped on Nagasaki),
· Produce a radioisotope for science
· Produce electricity from nuclear energy
· Enable studies of health hazard of reactor radiation (we are wondering if this was an accidental or planned health hazard study)
· Produce a radioisotope used to treat cancer (carbon -14)
· Other stuff to complicated to get into
Our biggest surprise of the day was that Oak Ridge remains a secret city. It has two of the world’s most intense neutron sources, and scientists the world over come here to do neutron scattering research.
The world’s largest computer resides here. As does the world’s largest stockpile of enriched uranium. And, there is a Homeland Security outpost in an area of the complex where we are instructed that we cannot take pictures.
What might they be working on in these places, and in other areas of this vast complex where our bus failed to take us?
Today we are looking back almost three quarters of a century in amazement at what our nation was able to accomplish here under the cloak of secrecy. We can’t help but wonder what people touring here in another few decades might be saying about research going on here now.
On a lighter note, we can’t leave Oak Ridge without mentioning Big Ed’s Pizza, which our guide on the bus tour told us is the one place in town that the Oak Ridge staff always take visiting scientists and dignitaries.
Hearing this, we had to go there ourselves. The menu is on a 4”x 6” card. All they serve is pizza, beer and a bunch of other non-alcoholic beverages. No salad, no breadsticks or chicken wings or calzones. Just really good pizza served in a big dark noisy room lined with a crazy mish mash of historic, sports and celebrity memorabilia. We waited almost an hour for our pizza, but it was so worth it. It might have been our most authentic Oak Ridge experience.