In the race to develop the atomic bomb that would end World War II, scientists toiled in instant cities hidden from maps and public view. Our editor dives into the world of experimental reactors and prefab housing to revisit a time when secret places could really stay secret.
Imagine you work in a city that isn't on any map, in a house that has no postal address. You go to work each day not really knowing the purpose of what you are doing or how it fits into the jobs of the thousands of other people going to work each day around you. You don't talk about where you live or what you do with anyone on the outside—and even on the inside the work conversations are kept within your own department. You always erase the blackboard after a meeting.
The roof of the building you are working in is painted black so it can't be bombed in the dark. To enter your city of residence, you must show identification to be waved through one of seven gates by a guard. The entire city is fenced, topped with barbed wire and guard posts, and nobody enters who is not a government employee or an immediate family member. Your son plays on the high school football team, but there are no names on any of the jerseys.
This was the strange life of the people of Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the early 1940s. At the beginning of 1942 there were some 3,000 people scattered around a rural valley in Tennessee. Within a few months they were all gone, paid to leave—with no option to say no—and in came bulldozers and construction crews to undertake one of the fastest and largest public works projects of the 20th century.
Within a year 35,000 new residents were living in what a popular gift shop t–shirt calls, "America's Original Gated Community." As the Manhattan Project's race to build an atomic bomb went from theory to reality, the population swelled to 75,000. The plant constructed to separate uranium, called simply K–25, covered a staggering 1,500 acres. It ran on for half a mile and was the largest building in the world at the time.
The location was isolated and hidden in a valley. It also had a hydroelectric plant nearby and plenty of water—two key points for such a bold plan: splitting the atom and building the most destructive weapon ever invented. Other needed items arrived by train, including 14,700 tons of silver from the U.S. treasury to use in the uranium enrichment process.
Three Pieces of the Atomic Puzzle
Despite all the secrecy, this was only part of the picture. One courier carried the enriched uranium away from Oak Ridge in a case attached to his wrist with a handcuff. He traveled back and forth to another secret city of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where a smaller group of scientists was at work designing and assembling the actual A–bombs. A separate facility in Hancock, Washington supplied the plutonium that went into the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
For the test bomb, the crew filled in cracks in the hull with tissue paper and Scotch Tape and hoped it would really work. On July 16, 1945, it did work. At the White Sands test site (near an area Las Cruces, New Mexico residents now call "The Cancer Belt") the world's first atomic bomb exploded, sending the first nuclear mushroom cloud into the air. Four hours later, a ship set sail for Tinian Island in the Pacific, with "Little Boy" aboard. On August 6, 1945, Little Boy landed on the Japanese military manufacturing base of Hiroshima, flattening the entire city. Three days later, after repeated entreaties to the Japanese to surrender, the U.S. dropped the second A–bomb. The bloodiest war in history came to a sudden end.
A New War Brings New Secrets
Now the Oak Ridge National Laboratory looks like your typical suburban office park, albeit with a higher level of security. On my way to meet up with a press person to get my official badge and tour the historic graphite reactor, I pass the Center for Nanophase Material Sciences, the Radioactive Ion Beam System, and the High Flux Isotope Reactor. Something tells me the local school science fair goes well beyond a baking soda volcano.
Some of the work going on here is advancing the march of mankind, with cutting–edge solar energy research and cancer treatment. Other aspects are classified and have gotten more secretive since the terrorist bombings of 2001. "Nobody really knows what goes on in that Y–12 building now," one local tells me, "but it's got something to do with Homeland Security." At my hotel's evening mixer, I meet two clean–cut older men who are "here on business."
"What business would that be?" I ask.
"We're consultants," says one of them.
"What kind of consultants?"
"It's complicated," says the other.
I drop it and we talk about how great it is to stay at a hotel with a free beer happy hour.
A newsletter I pick up in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory waiting area provides a few hints of what's happening nearby though. "ORNL's national security portfolio contains unique biochemical capabilities."
Hopefully those biochemical agents are stored in a better manner than the nuclear waste was in the 1940s and then during the Cold War. One of my best friends grew up in Oak Ridge and she jokes about that being why her family is dysfunctional and why she pops a whole daily regimen of assorted pills. The same newsletter I'm reading casually lists cleanup plans through 2035 and then tosses out this sobering note: "…a decision still needs to be made about Bear Creek Burial Grounds, where about 4.5 million pounds of uranium are buried."
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