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Oak Ridge, TN Sheds ‘Secret’ Manhattan Project Status

Oak Ridge's unique history adds to its economic development and cultural growth

By Teree Caruthers on November 23, 2015

Oak Ridge. TN Manhattan Project
Oak Ridge / Courtesy of the Manhattan Project

 In 1942, when Oak Ridge was established as part of the U.S. government’s Manhattan Project – the research and development initiative that led to the first nuclear bomb during World War II – Oak Ridge couldn’t be found on any map. The “Secret City” became home to the K-25, Y-12 and X-10 plants, each of which played a pivotal role in developing the weapons that aided in the nation’s defense.

“Initially, Oak Ridge had a population of 75,000, was the fifth-largest city in Tennessee, and was not on any map,” says Ray Smith, Y-12 historian and author. “It was a closed city from November, 1942, until March 19, 1949, when the main roads were opened to the public. In August, 1945, 22,000 people worked at Y-12 alone!”

Denise Kiernan wrote about this population surge in her best-selling book The Girls of Atomic City, which tells the story of the countless women who traveled from all over the country to work at the secret Oak Ridge plants. Today, while the city’s population has steadied at around 30,000, Oak Ridge and its enviable quality of life, enhanced still by the presence of ORNL and Y-12, are anything but secret.

Spin-off City

The research and development projects at ORNL and Y-12 National Security Complex are much more diverse than during World War II or even during the Cold War. Today, the facilities are exploring renewable energy options, improving 3-D printing capabilities, and making discoveries in biotechnology and health care that impact not only the lives of Oak Ridge residents, but of the entire nation.

“The single largest impact on health care has been nuclear medicine,” Smith says. “Nuclear medicine was invented here; the radionuclides that are used in treatment or diagnosis for cancer and other ailments all have their origin in Oak Ridge and in the stable isotopes that were separated at Y-12 and in the radioisotopes that were generated with the reactor over at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.”

Smith says the facilities, which are now privately managed through contracts with the Department of Energy, have also contributed to the city’s top-ranked school system. ORNL’s contractor, UT-Battelle, was a leader in the $55 million renovation of Oak Ridge High School, which included a $2 million gift as well as executives loaned for the project’s design, communication and fundraising efforts. Y-12’s contractor contributed $1 million, and both ORNL and Y-12, along with the DOE entities Oak Ridge Associated Universities and the Office of Scientific and Technical Information, continually provide support to the Oak Ridge School System through STEM programs.

“They have actually created partnerships with the schools to bring engineers into the schools and have them interact with the students. They have internships that are available for local students, and there are activities during the summer where the kids can spend time in the laboratory participating in various projects,” Smith says.

People Pleaser

Y-12 and ORNL remain two of the state’s largest employers, attracting a large and diverse pool of talent. Smith says these individuals also bring a desire for a particular quality of life which they both support and actively engage in.

“Both ORNL and Y-12 support many of the charities in the area, the arts and other cultural aspects of our city. Without their monetary support, these organizations could not continue to exist,” Smith says. “The Oak Ridge Playhouse is an example, as is the Art Center. Many employees of both sites serve on local boards of directors for arts and charitable organizations – all contributing to the culture and quality of life of not only Oak Ridge but the surrounding region.”

The contributions of the Oak Ridge facilities to technological advancement are now on display for the world to see. The Department of Energy and the Department of Interior National Park Service partnered to establish the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, the first national park to have facilities in three separate locations: Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, N.M. and Hanford, Wash.

“If you think about the most significant military industrial achievement in the history of the world, you think about the creation of the nuclear age … and all of the advancement in technology that’s resulted from that single incident,” Smith says. “It’s important for us and for students especially to have an appreciation of our past. The importance of the Manhattan Project didn’t end with the war. The Manhattan Project is all of the technological advances that have taken place since, and it’s important for people to recognize its significance.”

It’s important for us and for students especially to have an appreciation of our past. The importance of the Manhattan Project didn’t end with the war. The Manhattan Project is all of the technological advances that have taken place since.

Ray Smith
Y-12 Historian and Author
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