Dan The Man recently spent a week in his hometown of Oak Ridge, Tenn., visiting family and seeing old friends. Everybody likes to brag about their hometown, so allow me to boast about the Atomic City.

Located in East Tennessee in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the city of Oak Ridge did not exist when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. A handful of families on centuries-old farms populated the area known as Black Oak Ridge.

Following Pearl Harbor, the federal government chose three locations to develop the world’s first atomic bomb as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project: Los Alamos, N.M., Hanford, Wash., and the area that would come to be known Oak Ridge, Tenn.

A billboard in Oak Ridge during the peak of the Manhattan Project reminded workers to not talk about their work.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bought about 60,000 acres of rural farm land in East Tennessee in 1942 and began building three high-tech complexes to produce enriched uranium for an atomic bomb. The land was chosen because of its rural location and because the Tennessee Valley Authority had recently built nearby Norris Dam which would provide the millions of kilowatts of electricity need for the enrichment process.

Each of the three complexes comprised dozens of buildings and each complex was given a code names. The code names are still used today, and if you grew up in Oak Ridge when I did, chances are your parents worked at either X-10, K-25 or Y-12.

  • X-10 was the site of the graphite reactor, a pilot facility for the larger plutonium production complex in Hanford, Wash. After the war, X-10 became the site of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which is known worldwide for its research in the basic sciences, energy systems, environmental technology and safety.
  • K-25 was the site of the gaseous diffusion plant which separated uranium 235 from uranium 238. The 1,500-acre site was made up of dozens of buildings, including the K-25 Building that covered 44 acres, a record at the time. Today most of the site has been demolished and rebuilt as the East Tennessee Technology Park, a high-tech business park.
  • The Y-12 plant was built in Bear Creek Valley to separate the uranium 235 isotope from natural uranium using an electromagnetic process developed at the University of California at Berkeley. This process required massive magnets. Since copper was in short supply during the war, the electromagnetic coils were built with 14,700 tons of silver borrowed from the U.S. Treasury. Currently, Y-12 manufactures nuclear weapons components, participates in stockpile stewardship research and warehouses much of the nation’s enriched uranium. It is known as the ‘Fort Knox’ for highly enriched uranium.”

Did you know?

  • Touchscreen monitors were invented in 1971 by scientists in Oak Ridge working out of the basements of their homes. Led by Dr. Sam Hurst, whose day job was at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the scientists formed Elographics, Inc., which later became a subsidiary of Tyco Electronics.
  • The most powerful computer system in the world is located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Named “Jaguar,” the Cray XT5 supercomputer has a peak speed of 2.33 petaflops, which means it can perform more than two thousand trillion calculations per second.
  • During the peak of the Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge had the 6th largest bus transit system in the U.S. and utilized 13 percent of the nation’s electricity — yet few people knew the city existed.
  • Because of the secrecy demands of the Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge High School teams played only away games. No rosters were ever given to the opposing team.
  • Oak Ridge did not appear on any maps until 1949.
  • The Oak Ridge Community Playhouse is the longest continuously running theater in the Southeast.
  • The Oak Ridge Outdoor Swimming Pool is one of the largest spring-fed pools in the nation and has a surface area of 1.5 acres and holds 2.1 million gallons of water.
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