Oak Ridge and World War II: Representing Tennessee
In 1939, a group of American scientists, including Albert Einstein, began work to persuade the U.S. government to use nuclear fission for military purposes. By 1942, the effort to create a nuclear bomb, code-named the "Manhattan Project," involved research sites across the country. In order to produce a nuclear weapon, the scientists realized that large-scale facilities were needed to separate Uranium-235 from the more common Uranium-238 and to produce Plutonium. The War Production Board chose a site in eastern Tennessee because of its remote inland location, low population, and access to abundant water and electrical power. This site was first called the Clinton Engineering Works and later renamed Oak Ridge.
The original 1,000 families who lived in the area were forced to evacuate, with as little as two weeks' notice. An entirely planned, gated, and guarded city was constructed on the newly acquired land. Oak Ridge had a peak population of 75,000 people in a town that included 300 miles of roads, 55 miles of railroad track, 10 schools, 7 theaters, 17 restaurants and cafeterias, and 13 supermarkets (Wickware 1945: 94). Like any other town, kids played baseball outside Oak Ridge schools [see image 1]. Homes built for workers were also places for people to live, love, and marry [see image 2]. Even so, planned homes ran out quickly, and other living spaces had to be built, including shacks and trailers to house the overflow.
As an important historical footnote, the original design for the town included an area called the "Negro Village," with dormitories and some well-built homes. However, these homes ended up going to higher-ranking white workers, and African Americans ended up living in shacks called "hutments." Schools were segregated as well, as they were across Tennessee in the era. Due to local action, however, in 1955 the city of Oak Ridge became one of the first in the South to mandate desegregation of its public schools.
Construction of the experimental X-10 Graphite Reactor began in January 1943. The X-10 was one of three reactors to produce Plutonium and enriched Uranium [see image 3]. Another plant, the K-25 [see image 4] used the gaseous diffusion method to separate uranium. It was operated by 12,000 workers, and at the time it covered more area than any building ever built. The third reactor the Y-12 Plant [see image 5] used an electromagnetic method to separate Uranium isotopes. Handling highly toxic materials provided challenges scientists needed to overcome. They also needed to experiment to discover the effect of radiation on various materials [see image 6]. In February 1944, the first plutonium shipment was sent from Oak Ridge to Los Alamos where it would contribute to the development of the first atomic bomb.
The nuclear facilities were transferred to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 and became the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The city of Oak Ridge was sold back into private hands in 1955 and incorporated in 1959. Oak Ridge continues to contribute to both energy and defense research for the United States in important ways.