Tha Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge, Tennessee

I have never been fond of bombs. But, Andy and I are both interested in science.  And, a tour of east Tennessee would not be complete without a visit to Oak Ridge.

I really did not know much about the Manhattan project, just had a few fuzzy facts in the back of my head. It surprised me how awed I was by the enormity and difficulty of the effort.  And, I am newly troubled by the moral issues of killing so many innocent civilians.  Yet, in the context of the time in history, I can see why that seemed to be the best, and maybe only, option at the time.

The Manhattan Project National Historical Park comprises some of the buildings still existing at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. We drove just over an hour to the  Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge. Can you believe it?  I forgot to take my camera with me!!  I used my tablet but, the pictures didn’t turn out very well and I can’t find the cord to transfer them to the computer.  Dang!!

We took a bus tour to the laboratory.  I have to say, the tour guide was excellent.  He was a retired chemist who had worked at the lab for thirty-seven years. His explanation was so clear that I almost thought I understood the process for a few minutes there. There were two short (and very old) films in the museum before we got on the bus. It showed all the big names involved: Fermi, Oppenheimer, Szilard, Wigner,Einstein, and Roosevelt. The German scientists knew that Hitler was working on building a bomb.  Szilard, Wigner, and Einstein drafted a letter to President Roosevelt.  Roosevelt then provided some funding for research but, the big effort did not start until after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

Then, with a massive effort.  The Tennessee valley was chosen for the site, the residents ejected, and a large secret town was built in two years.  They didn’t know for sure how to enrich uranium so they built three facilities based on the three methods they thought most likely to succeed. A town to house the 75,000 workers and their families was built along with the research facilities.

The first success came in the X-10  graphite reactor when they were able to produce small quantities of plutonium. That building is now a national historic site.  I grabbed this picture from the website. Those men are dummies.  I don’t mean stupid, I mean they are statues.

X-10 Graphite Reactor

The Y12 plant used Calutrons (from California University Cyclotron) developed by Ernest Lawrence.  A Calutron is a mass spectrometer that separated the isotopes of uranium.  It no longer exists.  It provided much of the uranium used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It was interesting that they hired only high-school educated girls to operate the calutrons.  The girls didn’t know what they were doing.  They simply operated the controls as they had been taught.

Calutron Operators at Y-12 Plant

Here is a virtual museum, better than my blather.

It was a sobering and fascinating day.   They performed an amazing scientific and technical task for an awful purpose. They met the goal of ending the war and saving many American and Japanese lives, if the war had continued, at the cost of two cities worth of Japanese civilians; Hiroshima (150,000) and Nagasaki (75,000).