Monday, July 27, 2009

Oak Ridge

I wanted to share something about my trip to Oak Ridge, TN. If you don't know, Oak Ridge is nicknamed the "Secret City" because it was one of 3 sites in the U.S. where work was done on the Manhattan Project during WWII.

At one time, the K-25 building that housed the gaseous diffusion equipment was the largest building in the world, and Oak Ridge was using something like %10 of the nation's
electricity to enrich uranium...and only a handful of people even knew Oak Ridge existed. It wasn't on any map. During the Manhattan project, the town's population grew from 3,000 to 75, 000, and they were all required to wear ID badges, even children.

All over were messages designed to promote extreme secrecy for the sake of national security. "The nazis are looking for bits of information! Guard your conversations!"

So I had to go see this place.

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Ryan and I were on a weekend trip to visit his family in Monterrey, TN, and we were out of
stuff to do, so we hopped in the car early one morning (Required some actual planning on our part) and drove about an hour until we were very near Knoxville. There were some signs on the interstate, but nothing to really suggest what we were about to see. Driving through town was much like any other po-dunk town you'd see during a pit-stop on a longer trip. From what I could tell, they only had ONE Chik-fil-A.

But then we walked into the American Museum of Science and Energy, bought two $5 tickets and reserved coveted seats on the bus tour. While waiting for the bus, we goofed off in the museum, which would be, by the way, a fantastic place to take a kid or a class of kids.

Here's a sweet little girl getting herself gently and safely electrocuted.---->

Driving around the area is somewhat eerie. It seems like you're just out on the mountain
s somewhere, surrounded by walls of green, mostly kudzu.

But when it occurs to you that something must be using all the electricity in the towers and lines snaking all over the landscape, you start to feel strange and curious.

Then on the bus tour, we stopped at a gigantic gate, and an armed military guard stepped onto the bus. Our tour guide stated that we needed to pass through this checkpoint portal. The guard looked us over, I supposed he was checking for terrorists he could identify on sight...then after only a few seconds he said shortly, "MMk. You're good. Have a nice day." No turbans? No terrorists, apparently. So weird.

There were certain places we were not allowed to take photos, so I kept my conspicuous antique camera with its obnoxiously loud shutter in my bag.

Now I'm doing my best to explain the science and history behind this to you, but I teach ART, remember? So if you're really interested you should look it up on Wiki at least. Go look it up. You will be fascinated.

The bus kept driving, presumably into nowhere. The trees were thick and the road curved, it was impossible to see where we were going. Very few cars passed us going the opposite direction. Then, out of nowhere a shining multiplex of scientific glory was beaming at me from the top of a hill.

We stopped at the new lab facilities and poked around inside, learning about neutron scanning and firing protons at near the speed of light and on and on. My dad, had he been along, would have exhausted the tour guide with very specific questions. So fab.

There were many other stops, but I got the best pictures from the X-10 site, which was littered with both new and ancient buildings, and the home of the fabulous graphite reactor. Yes graphite; the stuff inside of pencils.

The graphite reactor was used to
bring uranium to critical mass. The graphite inside was apparently some kind of filler or buffer, and the outside had specifically hand-labeled holes, used for inserting rods into the reactor. In fact, most everything inside of X-10 was hand labeled. I supposed they couldn't send away to some sign making company and order signs for their "nuclear radioactivity monitor."

If you can see in the photo--->
all of those diagonal lines next to the holes are hand written numbers and labels. There are some 3,000 of them just on the reactor's face.

So imagine some small town Tennessee lady, with a ruler and a calligraphy pen, in her 1940s uniform, hand numbering and lettering the labels on a nuclear reactor.

One of the most amusing things about this site, besides the history and science was these cheesy mannequins they had posing with a rod. They're dressed in their radioactivity protection gear, without head protection, and covered in 30 year old dust. That dude on the right is about to get smacked in the head Stooges-style.

All of this effort and money and electricity was used to extract the useable isotope uranium-235 out of uranium ore, which is 99.3% uranium-238. The weapons-grade uranium was then placed in small vials, put in a briefcase, and handcuffed to a lieutenant on a train to Chicago, who then switched for a train to Los Alamos, New Mexico. We were told that all of the u-235 produced during those years would fit in a 2 liter soda bottle. But you guys, it fueled the bomb ("little boy") that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. The the other bomb ("fat man") dropped on Nagasaki was fueled by plutonium.

So it was a fascinating and moving trip. I felt proud to have grown up in a state that was instrumental in ending the second world war. I'm even more proud that us loud-mouthed southerners were able to keep it a secret long enough for it to work. :)

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