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Historian speaks about secret history of Oak Ridge
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How does a city of 75,000 inhabitants, spread out over 60,000 acres, make itself invisible? How can familiar place names suddenly disappear from official maps?
The mystery began when the famed theoretical physicist Albert Einstein signed a letter, along with other leading scientists, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 urging him to launch an all-out effort to build an atomic bomb before the Germans, who marching toward the super weapon, could claim the final strategic victory in World War II.
The result, according to historian Ray Smith, was the ultra-secretive creation of Oak Ridge, Tenn., as America’s central facility for beating the Nazis to the atomic bomb.
A veteran of 43 years of management service at the Y12 National Security Complex, Smith is recognized as the foremost historian of the genesis and operation of the facilities, nestled in the valleys of Anderson County along the Clinch River, that produced the first atomic bombs, prompting the Japanese surrender and the end of a war that could otherwise have claimed thousands more American lives. He is a widely published author, consultant in historical documentary films and newspaper columnist.
“From the same science that built the atomic bomb came nuclear medicine,” said Smith, who serves as a keynote speaker, including an appearance in McMinnville for the Noon Rotary Club.
As successor to the Atomic Energy Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy has changed operating contractors at its massive Oak Ridge installations many times. In one of the more recent iterations the new contractor needed help in cataloging the 800 buildings on the sprawling site. Smith volunteered to help, and in the negotiations that followed he was officially designated the historian of the most famous of the facilities, the Y12 uranium enrichment apparatus that produced the fissile material for the bomb that ended World War II and by extension inaugurated the Cold War.
That facility, which extracted the weapons-grade uranium-235 from ore consisting mostly of uranium-238, employed Calutrons, which required the services of the world’s most powerful electromagnets. These massive devices consumed huge amounts of electricity, one reason for locating the Secret City weapons plant near the TVA’s Norris Dam generating station. TVA would quickly have to build a half-dozen more hydroelectric plants to satisfy Oak Ridge’s voracious energy demand, Smith noted.
Oak Ridge enlisted area labor, from doctorate-level scientists to skilled construction labor to secretaries and technicians. As few workers had cars and as roads in the East Tennessee city were primitive, a public transportation system had to be created overnight. The result was a fleet of 850 buses, representing the ninth largest mass transit system in the U.S. at the time, Smith said.
Young women from the area proved to be adept, dependable and efficient workers, many of them serving as control room technicians in the Y12 unit. In fact, the “invisible city” featured 10 men’s dormitories but 20 dormitories for single women. While steadily watching the meters and adjusting the dials, the women saw their hairpins snatched from their heads and flying to the building walls, held there by the enormous magnetic force produced by the Calutrons.
The huge electrical coils in these magnets would ordinarily be made of copper wire. But as copper was needed to make brass ammunition casings for the guns in conventional war-fighting, Oak Ridge’s engineers substituted silver – 14,700 tons of it – into the design for the Calutrons.
Among present-day facts is the construction of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility at Oak Ridge, the largest construction project in Tennessee since the original Manhattan Project that launched the Secret City. More than $6 billion will be spent on the facility, Smith said, dwarfing the investment in private and public sector construction in single projects in the state’s history.