t was the best of times and the worst of times: It's a Wonderful Life and six million Jewish deaths. ``White Christmas'' and black lists. Gas rationing and Guadacanal. Casablanca and Hiroshima. V-2 rockets and V-J Day.
News of the German discovery of fission had reached America within weeks, relayed by Danish physicist Niels Bohr. In July 1939, at the urging of physicists Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging a U.S. research program. ``Einstein understood it in half a minute,'' recalled Wigner, who was to play a central role in ORNL's early history. ``It was really uncanny how he dictated a letter in German with enormous readiness.... I translated that into English.... This helped greatly in initiating the uranium project.''
For the next two years, progress was agonizingly slow. Then, in a phenomenon somewhat akin to uranium reaching ``critical mass''--the level of concentrated fission necessary to trigger a self-sustaining chain reaction--the Manhattan Project became an urgent national priority. In May 1941, 40 tons of graphite and eight tons of uranium oxide were ordered for experiments. They were to be stacked in atomic ``piles,'' the experimental forerunners to nuclear reactors, made by piling up uranium chunks surrounded by graphite. Graphite, a form of carbon, helped boost the likelihood of fission by slowing neutrons, particles given off spontaneously by some atoms, and turning them into subatomic ``cueballs'' that could break apart other atoms.
On December 2, 1942, in a squash court beneath the University of Chicago's Stagg Field, a group of researchers led by Enrico Fermi achieved the world's first self-sustaining fission reaction. ``It was as though we had discovered fire,'' one of the scientists said years later.
To build on the success, massive research and production efforts were parceled out around the country. Led by Fermi and other scientists from Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory, teams of scientists and engineers undertook secret tasks at a handful of closely guarded sites: a former boys' school on a remote mesa at Los Alamos, New Mexico, the center of weapons design; the experimental cyclotron and labs of the University of California, where physicists explored the properties and explosive potential of a newly created element, later named plutonium; the stark, remote valley of the upper Columbia River at Hanford, Washington, where many pounds of plutonium were to be produced by three massive reactors; and a series of valleys in East Tennessee--isolated but convenient to two rail lines, a river, and the abundant electricity of the Tennessee Valley Authority--where techniques would be devised to produce and purify the large quantities of fissionable uranium and plutonium that would be needed.
Ground was broken for ``Clinton Laboratories,'' as Oak Ridge National Laboratory was called then, on February 2, 1943. By summer, some 3,000 construction workers erected about 150 buildings. The materials list included 30,000 cubic yards of concrete, 4 million board feet of lumber, 4,500 gallons of paint, and 1,716 kegs of nails. Within the boom town of Oak Ridge itself, a house--sometimes loosely defined--was being constructed every 30 minutes. The bus system in the secret city would be the nation's sixth largest; electricity consumption (largely because of the gargantuan uranium-enrichment plants called Y-12 and K-25) would be 20 percent greater than New York City's.
The heart of the X-10 site, as the Laboratory was often called, was an experimental reactor far larger and more advanced than Fermi's Chicago pile: a graphite cube 24 feet on each side, with seven-foot-thick concrete walls for radiation shielding. The reactor was riddled with 1,248 channels for air cooling and uranium fueling; the fuel--60,000 cylindrical ``slugs'' of uranium--was canned, literally, by the Aluminum Company of America. Some of the neutrons freed by the fission chain reaction would be captured by uranium atoms; those atoms would thus be transformed into plutonium, which chemical engineers would figure out how to extract and purify. Besides supplying badly needed experimental quantities of plutonium to the California researchers, the Graphite Reactor and its chemical-separation labs served as pilot-scale models for Hanford's production plants.
The reactor took just nine urgent months to build. In the predawn hours of November 4, 1943, the reactor ``went critical'' with a self-sustaining fission reaction--the world's second reactor to achieve one. Over the next year, the reactor performed flawlessly, irradiating thousands of fuel slugs, which were disassembled and dissolved so the plutonium could be extracted, bit by precious bit. In March 1944, the first plutonium sample big enough to see--sealed in a 5-milliliter test tube--was destined for Chicago but later doomed: spilled by a scientist who'd had no sleep for 36 hours. Gradually, though, other shipments met the research needs of Manhattan Project physicists and chemists. By the end of 1944, with Hanford beginning to churn out plutonium, the Graphite Reactor's most urgent mission had been completed and its focus shifted to radioisotope production.
When a uranium-fueled atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, it was powered by the output of Oak Ridge's Y-12 and K-25 plants. Three days later, when a plutonium-fueled bomb struck Nagasaki, the destruction was wrought by Hanford's plutonium--based on Clinton Laboratories' radiochemical groundwork.
After the war, uncertainty reigned in Oak Ridge. Many workers felt proud that the bombs had helped hasten the war's end. But as pictures of devastation emerged from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, others harbored deep misgivings about the use of the bombs. Through the newly formed Federation of Atomic Scientists, Oak Ridge scientists and colleagues from other Manhattan Project laboratories lobbied Congress for control of atomic power to be shifted into civilian hands. Their efforts helped shape the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which created the Atomic Energy Commission and gave it jurisdiction over the newly released atomic genie.
But the AEC's creation raised as many troubling questions as it answered for the 1,000 employees of the postwar laboratory. During the war, the Lab's operations had been overseen by DuPont and the University of Chicago; afterward, the government recruited Monsanto to take over. By 1947, though, Monsanto decided to withdraw from its contract. The University of Chicago, which initially agreed to return after Monsanto's withdrawal, later backed out as well.
Even more unsettling than the question of who would oversee the Lab's postwar work, though, was the question of what work would remain to be overseen. ``During those days immediately after the war, everything seemed ambiguous,'' according to Alvin Weinberg, who became the Laboratory's research director, then its director for many years: ``the role of nuclear power, the relative priority to be given to reactors for power and reactors for military propulsion, the role of basic nuclear research, the responsibility of the Laboratory to the scientific educational community of the Southeast. Then there were many practical questions: Who would operate the Laboratory, who would be its permanent director; indeed, would the Laboratory survive?''
After months of uncertainty, Union Carbide and Carbon Co. (later Union Carbide Corp.), which already operated Oak Ridge's two other AEC installations, agreed in December 1947 to manage the Lab--a job it would hold until 1984. But that same December--a season dubbed ``Black Christmas'' in Oak Ridge--the AEC sharply curtailed Oak Ridge's plans for leading the development of nuclear power. The Materials Testing Reactor, a powerful new research reactor for ORNL was designing for itself, would be built in Idaho, not Tennessee, the AEC decreed. What's more, the leading role in reactor development would be played by Argonne National Laboratory, a new lab built near Chicago on the scientific foundations of the Metallurgical Laboratory. Oak Ridge would be relegated, it seemed, to continuing its isotope production and radiochemical separations--a mission that seemed, in some ways, like a giant step back.
One unquestioned success during an otherwise uncertain period was the outpouring of radioisotopes--radioactive versions of elements--from the Graphite Reactor to research labs and medical centers throughout the nation. The first shipment beyond the fences of the Manhattan Project was a small quantity of carbon-14, given to a St. Louis cancer hospital in August 1946, two months after Science magazine published a ``catalog'' of Oak Ridge isotopes. During the next 12 months, the Lab made more than a thousand shipments from an inventory of more than 60 different isotopes; by 1950, the number of shipments was nearing 20,000. Looking back in 1976 with the perspective granted by three decades, longtime ORNL director Weinberg wrote, ``If at some time a heavenly angel should ask what the Laboratory in the ills of East Tennessee did to enlarge man's life and make it better, I daresay the production of radioisotopes for scientific research and medical treatment will surely rate as a candidate for the first place.''
By the end of the decade, the outlook in Oak Ridge had brightened considerably. The Graphite Reactor was the world's leading source of intriguing and useful new isotopes, as well as a research tool whose capabilities, in the form of neutrons to probe materials, would open a whole new field of science. ORNL's bread-and-butter program, chemical separations, would begin development of new extraction processes that would be adopted by nuclear research and production facilities around the world. The Laboratory embarked on a program of biological research that would earn it global prominence over the coming decades. And with backing from both the U.S. Navy and the Air Force, ORNL edged its way back into reactor development, where it would focus much of its energy for the next decade.
Scientists and Second Thoughts
Date posted 5/10/94 (cel)