Oak Ridge: Tennessee’s Secret City

About 23 miles west of Knoxville, yesterday’s wartime city is looking toward a peaceful tomorrow.
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Site X. That was what the U.S. government called Oak Ridge, Tenn., in 1942. Hitler had stamped his black boots on nearly every country in Europe and was raining bombs on London. Japan had devastated our Pacific forces on our own soil at Pearl Harbor. The United States was now in the war to win the war, and the time for drastic action was ripe.

The pressing issue: How to convert a bunch of fancy physics theorems into real, live nuclear weapons -- preferably before the Germans did.

And so the Manhattan Project was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. To make bombs, the United States needed three things: a source of uranium, a source of plutonium and a place where some of the nation’s top minds could assemble the raw materials into weapons. The plutonium would come from Hanford, Wash., or Site W; the architects of the project were cloistered away in strict secrecy at Site Y: Los Alamos, N.M. The job of producing the highly fissionable U-235 uranium isotope, a complicated process, fell to the mysterious and top-secret Site X.

Several sites were considered, but none was as tantalizing as one in rural East Tennessee, near a sparsely populated spot called Black Oak Ridge. Near-total isolation would keep proceedings secret and prevent the enemy from finding the installation. Cheap hydroelectric power was readily available thanks to the recently created Tennessee Valley Authority. And since the government had no idea whether harvesting U-235 would prove dangerous to the population at large, it was just as well that there wasn’t much of a population nearby. (Apologies to the good people of Knoxville some 30 minutes away.)

Construction began on the new "Secret City" in November 1942. Poor local families were displaced, often with minimal or no compensation, to make room for the new workers and the houses and roads that would serve them. Some looked upon it as their patriotic duty, but others felt a lasting distrust and bitterness, especially the unfortunate few who had already been displaced for the construction of nearby Norris Dam and now were being uprooted all over again.

Living With the Bomb

The secrecy surrounding the project seems incredible now -- it wouldn't be possible in today's age of constant media scrutiny. But the fact is, the architects contracted to design Oak Ridge were miffed because they didn't even know what location they were designing for. Workers were recruited from all over the country with newspaper ads, yet they had no idea what they'd be doing; at work, they were not allowed to leave the floor they worked on to visit other parts of the building. (Many of them were women because the men had been drafted into military service.) New residents of the infant city were asked to keep 3" x 5" cards on which they could record the names of anyone they heard talking about the project in public.

"From 1943 to 1945, until the first bomb was dropped, almost no one knew anything about what they were doing," says D. Ray Smith, Y-12's official historian. "They just knew they were helping to win the war."

The outside world was equally clueless about what was going on at Site X. "Construction of the city of Oak Ridge was amazingly quick," says Smith. "Complete subdivisions were built overnight. After three years, with a population of 75,000, Oak Ridge was the fifth-largest city in Tennessee but could not be found on a single map."

Four main plants were constructed: Y-12, K-25, S-50 and X-10. "None of those names mean anything," says Smith. "They were just so if you saw them written down somewhere, you wouldn't learn anything. That was intentional, for security."

Over at Y-12, a young woman named Gladys Owens had been recruited to run a machine called a calutron, although she had no idea what it was for. "She told me, 'They put us in school to learn how to operate these calutrons, but at the end of the training, this man came in who was obviously an important person and said, we can’t tell you what you’re going to be doing -- we can only tell you how to do it. And all we can say is, if our enemy gets it first, God help us,'" Smith says. "She still remembered that 60 years later, it made such an impression on her. She also said that if you wore bobby pins to work, they’d go flying up against the wall because there was so much magnetism in that building. But she never did figure out what the hell she was doing in there."

Owens' secret responsibility? Her machine, along with 1,151 others, extracted the uranium that would become the Little Boy bomb, dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

Transition to the Future

Aug. 6 was a red-letter day in Oak Ridge history. As one bomb fell in Japan, another fell in Tennessee as news of what had happened hit the papers. Oak Ridgers, operating under a strict veil of silence for so many months, suddenly realized what they’d been part of, and so did the public. A slow and stunned reaction to the morning's news gave way to celebration of the successful war effort by the end of the day -- although the lingering reaction was mixed, as the news sank in that the site's special project had been a deadly weapon. However successful the bomb was at ending the war, nobody knew what the lasting consequences of its use would be.

Practically overnight, wartime Oak Ridge had to figure out how to move forward into peacetime. The Army announced that the city would remain intact, although cutbacks would be imminent as the federal government decided how to convert its interest in nuclear weapons into an ongoing nuclear energy project. Gradually, the forbidding, fenced-in city made the transition from military to civilian life.

The first thing Oak Ridge had in its favor was its sense of community. Luckily, the convergence of so many professionals in one place had created an exciting, viable cultural center, even if its residents were basically living in a bunch of muddy barracks. The scientists and engineers who were brought to Oak Ridge had mostly been lured from larger cities, where education and the arts were a high priority. They started a number of performing arts groups; these traditions grew after the war and still exist today as the Oak Ridge Community Playhouse, the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the Oak Ridge Community Band. "Oak Ridge is a small town -- today, it has about 28,000 people," Smith says, "but it has many of the amenities that you'd find in a much larger city."

Even more exciting was the possibility of turning such a huge, sophisticated facility into a scientific research mecca for the world. A device known as the Graphite Reactor, built in 1943 at X-10 to test the production of plutonium from uranium, began to be used after the war to render stable isotopes of different elements radioactive. This had an immediate and critical impact on several branches of science, especially medicine. Today, this pioneering research is used to diagnose and treat cancer, hyperthyroidism, arthritis and other conditions, helping millions of people every year.

Of the four original Oak Ridge plants, only Y-12 and X-10 are still operational. (S-50 was a temporary thermal diffusion plant that was demolished after K-25 came online, and K-25 was shut down in 1985.) Y-12 is still in the national security business, storing the nation's enriched uranium and manufacturing nuclear weapons. X-10, home of the Graphite Reactor, became what is known today as Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), one of the world's premier research facilities. ORNL's industry-leading advances in supercomputing, neutron science, energy, climate change and genetics (to name just a few fields) constantly redefine our understanding of the natural world.

Site X. From this quiet outpost in rural Appalachia, in the long shadow of the atomic bomb, some of the most sophisticated and optimistic advancements of the modern era have sprung -- and, the occasional glow-in-the-dark or half-life joke aside, Oak Ridgers are justifiably proud. "Oak Ridge is like Elvis," says Smith. "You don’t have to say 'Tennessee' for people to understand what you’re talking about. When Oak Ridge does something, it affects the world." 

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