Manhattan Project Heritage Preservation Association
My Nuclear Childhood
by: Jay Searcy
|Editor's Note: The below article ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer on August 9, 1992. It is reproduced here with their permission. The article is written by Jay Searcy, a young man who grew up in the "City Behind The Fence". We would like to get in touch with Jay Searcy or someone who knows him. Please contact us via "Feedback" above.|
|MY NUCLEAR CHILDHOOD
I GREW UP AMID BARBED WIRE, SPIES, PRIVATION AND THE BIGGEST SECRET THE NATION EVER KEPT. TO US, IT WAS PARADISE. THE SECRET SHARERS WE HAD UPROOTED OURSELVES FROM ALL OVER AMERICA TO LIVE SEALED IN PRIVACY, UNDER MILITARY DICTATORSHIP, DRIVEN BY WARTIME URGENCY - FOR A PROJECT ONLY A FRACTION OF US UNDERSTOOD.
Aug 09, 1992
By JAY SEARCY
AT NIGHT I COULD SEE the yellow glare from the secret plants where my parents worked, tucked mysteriously behind a ridge far off in the distance. The plants, surrounded by layers of great fences, were built well away from the town, and from one another, guarded and patrolled and hidden from the world in what was once remote Tennessee farm land. They were huge, windowless, silent block buildings that never shut down. Everything about them was top secret.
From our little prefabricated flattop house, which sat high on the crest of a ridge, I could stand on my bed and see much of the town through my window. It was a new town, a town of codes and rumors and secrets and aliases and lies, all in the name of security. And it was growing so fast that, sometimes when I looked out my window in the morning, a house would be standing where there was only an excavated lot the night before. At the height of construction a house went up every 30 minutes.
At one time there were more than 75,000 of us living there, and an additional work force of 40,000 was commuting from surrounding communities - soldiers and civilians, men and women - all under military rule, all protected by barbed wire and roadblocks and armed guards and patrol boats and mounted sentries. And everybody lived under the watchful eye of the FBI and military intelligence. Nobody, nobody, was allowed to talk about what he was doing. There was a war on. The enemy was listening.
Even we children were taught not to talk about things we saw, no matter how strange. And so, when I almost stepped on my elementary school teacher and a soldier making love in the picnic grounds behind a little white chapel, I never uttered a word. The Germans never found out.
One in four adults was a government informant, many of them enlisted from the workplace with orders to file weekly reports of any loose talk or security breaks. Even our future mayor was a spy. We didn't know it then, but intelligence agents hung around cafeterias and restrooms and dormitories watching and listening. They posed as bus drivers and waiters, scientists and librarians. A loose tongue could get you a trip out of town. No one ever seemed to know where.
Cameras, telescopes, binoculars and firearms had to be registered with the military. No liquor was allowed, although some got through security checkpoints hidden inside dirty diapers or between a mother's legs. Phones were tapped. Mail was inspected. Some top scientists used aliases, and names of other key project personnel weren't allowed to appear in newspapers (only first names were used in reporting the high school's first football games). Death certificates of employees accidentally killed on the
project were classified and weren't delivered to next of kin until after the war. Some plant workers, including my parents, were called in for periodic lie-detector tests.
Are you discussing your work with your spouse?
Have you heard others discuss their work?
Every worker's background was checked by the FBI before he was hired. Then he was told only what he needed to know to do his job. In a building where operators worked with secret "stuff" 24 hours a day, secret men would come and collect the secret material and cover it with black hoods so that workers couldn't see what they were making.
Everybody there knew we were on an important war mission, but nobody seemed to know what or that our project had been given top priority from the White House, above planes and tanks and ships and invasions. Were we testing weapons? Making some new super machine? Developing a miracle drug? We didn't dare ask.
NO ONE HAS EVER told the whole story of this town, and perhaps no one ever will. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction about a magic kingdom. Many of its secrets are in graves now with the men and women who helped create it, and other mysteries lie still buried in concrete vaults beneath the rolling landscape - here and there and God knows where. Those burial grounds, alas, are among the most controversial in the world, an issue that has cast a shadowy blight on the city's once heroic wartime legend.
In the beginning, this place was called Site X, the mystery city of the '40s, a unique melting pot of a frontier town with one of the greatest collections of brain power in the history of the world. It was Oak Ridge, Tenn., my home town. And it was so secret, almost nobody outside the immediate area even knew where we were or why we were there. Vice President Harry Truman didn't know. Tennessee's governor, Prentiss Cooper, didn't know he had a new town in his state until it was already sealed off and under construction. And even then he didn't know why.
Those living in surrounding communities who knew of it were told it was the Kingston Demolition Range. It was also known as the Clinton Engineer Works, the Manhattan Project or the Manhattan Engineering District. Outsiders were mystified to see trains haul in 100-boxcar loads of material almost every day, and never see anything go out. Part of what they saw go in looked like raw ore. Nothing went out for almost three years - and then it was shipped by the ounce in a specially made briefcase handcuffed to a secret courier.
Oak Ridge was never intended to last beyond its single wartime mission. We were just a government town, created from scratch out of the backwoods and farms of East Tennessee, farms once belonging to a few hundred families. We didn't know until much later that they had been banished from their land. And we just assumed that, after the war, the town would fold like a circus, and everybody would go home and the farmers would return to their fields. Half the town did leave in the six months right after the
war. But the town never folded: In fact, next month, Oak Ridge will be 50 years old. It is a town that has become economically strapped, maligned by environmentalists, shaken by recent cuts in defense spending and by hundreds, perhaps thousands of layoffs. But despite these ailments, it's gotten itself all gussied up, getting ready for the grandest celebration in its history, a 15-month birthday party that won't end until New Year's Eve 1993.
Despite its reputation, there is a lot more to Oak Ridge than meets the Geiger counter.
ONE GREAT FEAR KEPT the principals at Oak Ridge working and pushing others to work at a feverish pace: Nazi Germany. Some of the physicists who were brought to Site X, who were working to create the secret "stuff" the city had been built for, had lived in Germany, had run from Hitler and knew that, at the outset of the war, Germany led the world in the field of physics and could be well ahead of America. If Germany got there first, we likely would live out our lives under the reign of the Nazis.
Eugene P. Wigner, a Hungarian physicist and future Nobelist who was fired from his university teaching job in Berlin because his mother was Jewish, remembered his fear as the secret U.S. project was getting under way: "I don't know the exact date in Chicago," he had said, "but we received a paper written by a friend, a German friend working on the German atomic effort, and he was sent to Switzerland to do something. He was against Hitler, and he told us, 'Hurry up. We are on the track.' "
It was September 1942, and our fighting boys were being pummeled in the Pacific. Col. Leslie Groves, named by President Roosevelt to lead the secret Manhattan Project , ordered agents from his Army Corps of Engineers to secure 56,000 acres of the remote Tennessee hill country. People whose families had lived on the land for generations were given little explanation for the government's sudden intrusion. One day they were farmers. The next day they were nomads, looking for a place to live. In a matter of weeks, more than 1,000 families in three little communities were driven out.
Crops were still in the fields, and hay was fresh in the barns when agents began swarming the countryside like ants. They pounded on doors and, citing the War Powers Act, informed owners that the government was taking their land and their buildings. They had 30 days to evacuate. The price - an average of $56 an acre - was not negotiable. If no one was home, eviction notices were hammered to doors. Some families were given only two weeks to leave, and in some cases, while the helpless farmers were still in their houses packing, demolition crews ripped off their roofs.
The land was selected for several reasons: the Tennessee Valley Authority's nearby power source, the ample water supply from the Clinch River, the location's relative seclusion (Knoxville, population 111,000, was the biggest town in more than 100 miles) - and, of course, the cheap labor and land.
In the search for manpower and brains, government recruiters worked almost nonstop, combing virtually every state and several countries. Single men and women, big families, young couples. Workers were hired from shipyards and laboratories and steel mills - electricians, welders, teachers, carpenters. Some of the craftsmen were so skilled they were like artists. Most plant workers had high school diplomas, and thousands had college degrees. The government paid to have them moved and promised to move them back home when the project was over. The recruiters raided university faculties for Ph.D.s and graduate students - from Columbia, Cal Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Chicago. They called on industry - Union Carbide, Alcoa, DuPont, Tennessee Eastman, Monsanto, Westinghouse. At one time, there was a greater concentration of Ph.D.s at the plants than anywhere else on earth. And hardly anyone was over 40.
For the displaced farmers, the invasion brought a culture clash of gigantic proportions. Many people in those parts in the '40s rarely received more than a seventh-grade education, and many lived in houses with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Into this setting swarmed thousands of sophisticated intellectuals who had never been South, who thought they had moved to Dogpatch - and said so.
When some of the native people went to work for the project, their children went to the town's modern, federally funded schools, which had drawn a superintendent from Columbia University and teachers from 40 states. Every high school teacher had a master's degree. ("If you have students who are sons or daughters of Nobel Prize winners," they were instructed at their first orientation, "keep it to yourselves.")
Sitting in front of me in sixth grade was the refined daughter of a Ph.D.; sitting behind me was a native farm boy in overalls, whose teeth were greenish yellow because they had never been brushed.
NO MATTER WHERE WE were from or how sophisticated our background, all of us were astonished by the construction blitz we witnessed in Oak Ridge. There, in what was once a sleepy little pocket of the rural South, where change always had come slowly, 35,000 construction workers virtually attacked the landscape overnight. In just 30 months, a town and three plant sites were constructed, and Oak Ridge emerged as the fifth largest city in Tennessee - 17 miles long, seven miles wide, with a population topping 75,000. And with the sixth-largest bus system in the nation. By 1944, Oak Ridge was using 20 percent more electricity than New York City.
The earliest workers lived in Army trailers and hutments, when they were available, and rooms, attics and garages rented from nearby farmers when they were not. Some workers slept in abandoned outbuildings, in barns, in cars, and some pitched tents in parks and school yards until housing was available. In an attempt to appease scientists and their wives, lest they grow disgusted and leave, the Army built 3,000 "permanent" houses called cemestos, which became status symbols.
They were well-built, two- and three-bedroom homes with coal furnaces, fireplaces, hardwood floors and porches and furnished with new electric appliances that were virtually unattainable during the war. The cemestos, made of fiber board coated with a cement-asbestos mixture, were vaguely assigned according to a person's importance to the mission - mainly key scientists and engineers, top management, doctors and Army brass. And wherever possible, they were tastefully built on roomy lots, most of which were wooded.
(When the layoffs began after the war, the houses once reserved for VIPs became open rentals, which led to the creation of some interesting neighborhoods. In 1946, for instance, we left our $29-a-month three-bedroom prefab and moved into a Ph.D.'s three-bedroom, $46-a-month cemesto three houses down from the mayor, who lived next door to a plant superintendent and across the street from a janitor at an elementary school. My mother and the ex-mayor still live on that street.)
Prefabs - the ugly, boxy, one-door flattops that were transported to lots on flatbed trucks and built on wooden stilts - were considered the second-best housing. They, too, were equipped with refrigerators and ranges and also with beds, built-in cabinets, bookcases and warm-morning coal stoves. Coal was delivered free to everyone. Electricity and water were free. Trash pickup was free. City buses and work buses were free. Most streets were mud and gravel, and 163 miles of boardwalks, which ambled through neighborhoods and wooded recreation sites, were made of scrap wood.
The Army trailers, about 7,000 of them crammed into two locations, were mostly for construction personnel. They had no running water; some had no electricity. Oil stoves were used for heat and cooking. Kitchen sinks drained into open barrels, which were emptied when the daily sewage truck arrived. Slop jars used during the night were emptied next morning at bathhouses. My future wife, then 8, lived with her sister and parents in such a trailer for two months waiting for their house to become available.
"The trailer looked like a palace to me," said her mother, Peggy Hildebrand, now 79, "because we had lived in the woods in a tent for three days before we got that." Some married couples waiting for housing were forced to live separately in men's and women's dormitories, and no opposite-sex visitors were allowed in rooms. Some wives were arrested for visiting their husbands' rooms.
At the bottom of the wartime housing scale were the hutments, reserved mostly for black workers and unskilled laborers. Hutments were ugly, 16-foot- square, un-insulated plywood units with no electricity, no plumbing, no furniture except for footlockers, and no glass in the windows. There was only one door, and a pot-bellied stove was the only heat. Many residents walked a block or more to bathhouses for toilets and showers. Four people and sometimes five lived in them - 16,000 people in all, and not for a week or a month or a season, but for the duration of the war.
In keeping with practices in the South at the time, blacks were segregated, rode in backs of buses and got the worst jobs. And in the earliest days, they weren't allowed to live with their spouses or have their children with them or leave their compounds after 10 p.m. Five-foot fences topped with barbed wire separated the men's hutments from the women's. At night, patrolling MPs sometimes pulled down bleeding men from the fences.
Most white townspeople were never aware of the blacks' living conditions. We saw them mostly in their workplace. Later, when the war was over and the Army was gone, Oak Ridge would become the first town in the South to integrate its school system. But during the '40s, the Army was not out to promote social change. Its mission was solely to complete a project as rapidly and with as little resistance as possible. The town was always of secondary interest.
FOR MANY REASONS, Oak Ridge was not an easy place to live. Unless you were a child. For the children, Oak Ridge was paradise.
There were 20 supervised playgrounds with age-group athletic leagues, arts and crafts and clubs and movies and Little Theater. Every summer was like free camp. Every school was new and modern (two national spelling bee champions came out of those schools).
The town was so secret that non-working townspeople - which included children - could neither leave nor enter without badges or special passes, and we were subject to search at the security gates coming and going. The adults hated the inconvenience, but we children thought the idea of a covert existence was adventurous.
We imagined German spies to be behind every tree. And sometimes, when we played hooky from school, we imagined we were German spies and escaped the fenced city "to freedom" over and under barbed-wire along a wooded border road, hiding in ditches and weeds from U.S. patrol vehicles. "Freedom" was a nearby country store where young "German spies" were sometimes known to spend their lunch money on bologna, crackers and Nehi sodas and get sick on a 20-cent pack of Chesterfields.
If you were 12 years old or older, you had to wear a resident's badge with your picture on it - to school, to the store, everywhere. For a school kid, having a badge was the mark of certain maturity, a source of pride, and it was proof that you had been counted and were a part of this wonderfully impervious place. I never got my badge - one of the major disappointments of my childhood - for the town's secret was exposed before I turned 12, and nothing was ever quite the same.
I was 10 when we moved there, one of three children. Mother, a former one- room-school teacher, and my father, a farmer's son, were $4-a-day cotton- mill hands in Stevenson, Ala., when they heard about the Manhattan Project . Like many in the South, they moved there and tripled their income.
I never knew what my father did except that he was a "chemical operator" at Y-12, one of three secluded, code-named plant sites. I know he was accidentally gassed once and crawled on his stomach to an adjoining room for help. I overheard the story in his hospital room - but not from him. He had signed a pledge of secrecy, and 19 years after the war ended, he went to his grave without ever talking to us about his job.
Mother also worked at Y-12, but in a different building. Even now, at age 85, she will say only that her job was to process uranium. "I know they don't do it now the same way they did it then," she told me one day recently, "but I gave my word." She took from her purse a discolored, dog-eared pledge card that read in part: "The U.S. government wishes to remind Dovie Ryan Searcy of the Secrecy Acknowledgment you signed when employed . . . and call your attention to the penalties (death or life imprisonment, maximum) for disclosing any information. . . ."
(In 1961, after working for most of 15 years in the "hottest" building at Y-12, mother was forced to transfer to a "clean" building because of her ''high body count." For months she was required to leave urine and feces samples on our front porch for lab pickups. Doctors were still getting a radioactive reading on her at her retirement in 1971 and as recently as five years ago when she was last checked. She is considered something of a phenomenon by researchers from the Department of Energy, and they have asked that she donate her body for research. In the spirit of her wartime youth, she signed the pledge.)
At Oak Ridge during the war, patriotism and secrecy had became religions. ''If you only knew," the Army kept reminding us, "how important this work is to our fighting boys. . . ."
BECAUSE OF THE SECRECY, MOST OF US didn't know enough to be scared. Everybody worked round the clock, six and seven days a week, and never asked questions. Even labor union leaders were persuaded to postpone plans to organize plant workers until after the war.
But some of those who did know weren't just scared, they were terrified - terrified, we later learned, that the project might fail or that something might slip or spill and blow up the building. Or the town. Or the state.
Col. Groves, the West Point engineer in charge of the Manhattan Project , who during the project was promoted to general, once told one of his engineers: "If the reactor blows up, jump in the middle of it and save yourself a lot of trouble."
It was an understandable fear. Despite assurances by Nobel Prize-winning physicists, nobody knew for sure what might happen, how powerful the new ''stuff" would be. They were working in an area where there was no experience. On the eve of the first test in the southern New Mexico desert, Robert Oppenheimer, in charge of the secret assembly site at Los Alamos, quietly set up two evacuation plans with the New Mexico governor, just in case - one for the general area, another for the entire state. And some technicians working on the test at Los Alamos that day were stunned to hear the project's top physicist, Enrico Fermi, take side bets on whether they would ignite the atmosphere.
Only a handful knew it, but on Nov. 4, 1943, just 14 months after the first parcel of land had been purchased in Tennessee, the world's first full-scale graphite nuclear reactor went critical at X-10. Criticality, a controlled nuclear chain reaction, was achieved on a grand scale. Nine miles to the east, the electromagnetic separation plant (code name Y-12) and later the gaseous diffusion separation plant (K-25) began turning out U-235, the weapons-grade uranium, the "stuff" for which our secret atomic city had been built.
As it was processed, the uranium was stored in a specially built bunker called Katie's Kitchen near X-10, disguised as an abandoned barn and silo. The storage room, with thick concrete walls and a heavy vault door, was built into the earth. The silo, hooded at the top, was actually a guard tower.
By the winter of 1945, the plants were producing daily about seven ounces of U-235, and in March, the first of several small clandestine shipments to Los Alamos left Site X in the form of green salt or powder. By late July, Los Alamos had about 30 pounds of the enriched uranium. More than enough.
ON AUG. 6, A MONDAY, WE WERE JUST SITTING down for lunch when my father heard President Truman come on the radio. We huddled around the set. A B-29, he announced, had dropped a new kind of bomb on Hiroshima, a bomb more powerful than 20,000 tons of conventional explosives - and the main component had come from Oak Ridge, Tenn.
"It's a bomb!" my father shouted. "We've been making an atom bomb!" My sister, Mary Glenn, began to cry, partly out of fear and partly because she had been told by my father that they were making paper dolls at the plants.
As quickly as you could say "atomic bomb," the secret of my home town was out - and no town was ever quite so proud. Oak Ridge, not even in existence when the war started in 1941 (and at war's end, still not shown on maps of Tennessee), suddenly was known all over the world. We who had uprooted ourselves from our homes all over America to live here in secrecy, we who were from virtually every walk of life, we who had joined hands for three years in the '40s and lived under military dictatorship to help win a war, we were suddenly reading about ourselves in the newspapers and hearing about our town in radio broadcasts.
As soon as Truman finished making his announcement, neighbors spilled into their yards and formed snake lines in the streets. Car horns and fire hall sirens sounded and firecrackers exploded (how did they ever get them through the security gates, I wondered). Wives telephoned their scientist husbands at the plants: "Hey, now I know what you've been working on!"
Waldo Cohn, then a young biochemist at X-10, and some of his colleagues knocked off work, drove to the center of town and became engulfed in a spontaneous parade. They stuck their heads out of car windows and waved and shouted words they had been forbidden to utter:
In a matter of hours the Knoxville newspapers had extra editions on the streets ("Power of Oak Ridge Atomic Bomb Hits Japan"), selling for $1 apiece. Bootleggers sold out before dark (it was a dry county, as were most in Tennessee). Street dancing lasted well into the morning.
Three days later, another bomb, this one with a plutonium core from a second secret city, Hanford, Wash., was detonated above Nagasaki. Two days after that, World War II was over.
When the announcement came, I joined some friends for the celebration. We ran through the streets shouting and beating dishpans with spoons and waving an American flag until we came upon an unsmiling man, a scientist, mowing his lawn.
"Hey," we shouted, "don't you know the war's over?"
"I know," he said, "but a lot more than the war is over. We've got to live tomorrow, too, you know." We thought he was a grump. We didn't know what he knew.
All we knew was what we read and heard on the radio: We had been working on one of the most important missions in history - and the world would never be the same because of it. It was the largest, most extraordinary scientific experiment in history, the first time that mankind had ever handled radioactivity on such an enormous scale. We all felt a little famous, the nuclear scientists and the laborer, the homemaker and the schoolboy. It didn't matter that half the town didn't know what an atom was, that, in fact, only about 1 percent of the people working there knew what was going on. We were all in it together, and we all had kept the secret - even if we didn't know what the secret was.
Our euphoria lasted for days. It was like having a romance with history. Oak Ridge had helped save a million lives, we were told, and had ushered in the Atomic Age. And what an age it would be:
In 20 years, we would run our homes and factories with nuclear energy, drop a pill in our gas tanks and drive for a year. Ships would sail the Pacific on a nuclear charge no bigger than a lump of coal. We would power rockets with it, and spaceships, and cure cancer. An unlimited supply of energy was now available.
How could we know then that almost none of that would happen and that, instead, billions of dollars would be spent for nuclear arsenals? How could we know that 50 years later, nuclear waste problems would be unsolved, that the nation would not trust atomic energy?
Our celebrity began to fade when the horrid details from Japan began to emerge - two cities scorched by heat, buildings leveled for miles, more than 100,000 dead or missing, thousands maimed, thousands more exposed to lethal doses of radioactive fallout. Once the faces of the victims were shown across America in Movietone News clips, it was hard to continue cheering. Now, the genie we let out of the bottle had to be dealt with. Not just for a few years or for a lifetime, but forever.
IT WAS IN A MOVIETONE CLIP THAT I FIRST saw those big, secret, windowless buildings that emitted that ominous yellow glare at night. Somewhere in those buildings was where the atom was split, where they produced the Uranium 235 that fueled a bomb four times hotter than the sun.
Those plants are still there, still off-limits mostly. But now, rather than being created, nuclear weapons are being dismantled. The Army barracks are gone, the soldiers are gone, and the boardwalks and hutments, and trailer camps and mud roads. Our first house and the thousands of other hurry-up wartime prefabs are gone, broken down like cardboard boxes soon after the war and removed like trash.
When it came time, in 1949, to open the gates to the public, Oak Ridgers protested. Though the adults had complained during the war about government rule and the Army and the mud, they voted 4-1 against opening the town. The government overruled.
Our family stayed in Oak Ridge because we had no better place to go. And there were thousands like us. We stayed and watched it gradually lose its ugly, pock-marked, mudhole-of-a-war-town appearance and become a culturally alive and warm little home town, with its own symphony orchestra and civic ballet troupe and community theater and an internationally known museum, and state championship high school athletic teams. Today it has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the South and an education level well above the national average. And it has more than 1,100 Ph.D.s among its 27,310 residents and employees.
Oak Ridge was, after all, heralded by architects as one of the most skillfully planned U.S. cities. It still is one of the top research centers in the world and still home of the world's most specialized nuclear fabricating operation. Some equipment for the moon launch was made there, as well as various elements for other rockets and nuclear submarines and space craft. The first successes with kidney transplants in animals were there, the first investigations of bone marrow transplants. Nuclear medicine got its start there. Computer experts at Oak Ridge National Laboratory planned the transport of troops and material for Operation Desert Storm, the largest military movement in U.S. history.
Except for the American Museum of Science and Energy, which attracts tourists from all over the world, and the first full-scale nuclear reactor, now a national landmark, there is little to remind one of the town's nuclear war days.
Oh, you might run over a "hot" frog now and then, as some motorists did a few years ago on one of the plant roads. A curious plant researcher, noticing an increasing number of frogs flattened on the pavement, inspected a few in his laboratory and found a radiation reading. The discovery made headlines in supermarket tabloids, but in spite of the sensationalism, authorities said the little creatures were the harmless, non-glowing variety that had ventured from their overpopulated and contaminated native pond. It was the kind of explanation Oak Ridgers have accepted since the beginning, more out of trust than understanding. The trust generally stops at the city limits.
WHEN THE WORLD STARTS running out of other resources, when acid rain and acid mine water are out of control, when Japan is making its products with cheaper electricity, then - say Oak Ridge's pioneer scientists - perhaps the potential of nuclear energy will be appreciated again and the great promise of Oak Ridge will be fulfilled. To most of the rest of the world, the great promise was destruction and contamination.
When Oak Ridge was built, it had two major objectives: one, to isolate the isotope U-235 (hot uranium) from U-238 (natural) and use it in a weapon, and, two, to design and test a graphite reactor to burn the U-235 and, in the course of its burning up, create plutonium, which also could be used in a weapon and required only a third as much. No one had ever seen plutonium until the first small amounts were made at X-10, which served as the pilot plant for the massive plants in Hanford, Wash. Plutonium fueled both the New Mexico test bomb and the bomb detonated above Nagasaki.
But Oak Ridge had another mission: to explore the biological hazards that were produced by the fission products. And it began to wrestle with the problems of nuclear waste. No one knew for sure what to do with it. Some of it was sealed in steel tanks and buried in concrete graves. Some was dumped in holding ponds where it could decay and be released into streams. Mercury, which was used in large amounts at Y-12 until the '50s, was discharged into East Fork Popular Creek, contaminating sediment and adjoining privately owned off-site land. No fishing is allowed there. No swimming. No boating. At K-25 today, 77,000 drums of trans-uranic waste, retrieved from an old sludge pond, sit out on concrete pads waiting for final disposal.
No one is certain about how much nuclear waste there is, or how harmful it might be. But many of the Oak Ridge pioneer scientists insist the danger is grossly exaggerated, and they bristle at the suggestion that they were careless. "Don't people realize," asked Robert Santoro, a longtime Oak Ridge National Laboratory physicist, "that we are scientists who also live here and have children and family and loved ones who live here, and that we are not interested in hurting them?"
"We tried to put it in a safe place," said Waldo Cohn, who spent most of the war years in nuclear-hazard research at X-10. "We had a special drain, and it went into special holding tanks. We figured it would sit there until kingdom come. It was never discarded willy-nilly. When they talk about contamination in Oak Ridge, it's largely not the fission products, because those are mostly decayed away, and if they're not, they're in such small amounts anyway, they never were a problem. They're talking mostly about uranium spills, plain old natural uranium, which is radioactive, but relatively harmless because its radiation is so weak."
None of the talk seems to faze most Oak Ridgers one way or another. They have read the results of the frequent medical surveys, none of which has shown conclusive evidence of medical harm. In fact, some studies have shown cancer rates in Oak Ridge to be below the national average.
(Interestingly, radioactivity is not what is troubling Oak Ridge the town, which starts less than a mile from the Y-12 complex. It has another unusual environmental problem: the cemesto houses, the most desirable of the wartime dwellings. Many have deteriorated and need to be demolished, but because of their asbestos-coated boards, they are classified as hazardous by the EPA and must be discarded according to strict - read "expensive" - standards. The cost of removal is more than the worth of the lot.
So banks holding mortgages on cemesto homes are reluctant to foreclose: Even if debris is hauled away according to EPA standards and properly discarded, the banks, as owners, would remain liable for the asbestos into perpetuity.)
But it is Oak Ridge the government reservation, not Oak Ridge the town, that is on the Environmental Protection Agency's list of Superfund sites. A 30-year cleanup plan, financed by the Department of Energy, is now in its third year and, in the next five years alone, will cost $3 billion.
"We're cleaning up for the legacy," said Gale Rymner, community relations manager for the Department of Energy's Environmental Restoration Division, ''for the years of making nuclear weapons . . . when they were mainly digging ditches and putting it in the ground. . . . There is no imminent health or environmental hazards . . . (but) it's tough to fight emotions with facts. Perception is reality."
MANY OF THE WARTIME scientists never left Oak Ridge, or left and returned because of its stimulating scientific environment. But like the farmers they displaced, they have been largely forgotten. They are in their 70s and 80s now, still deeply wise, living out their time, a little hurt perhaps that, after almost 50 years, only about 5 percent of the world's energy comes from the atom.
You see them at the symphony, at church, walking their dogs, singing in choirs. If they are remembered now, outside the scientific community, it probably isn't for the new energy they harnessed a half-century ago, or for the war they helped to end. For all the good things, for all the peacetime opportunities their discoveries opened up to the world, their triumph more often than not is stigmatized by scandalous tales of contamination, and by the horrible weapon they helped to create.
Grass-roots America never quite understood them or what they did beneath the yellow glare of light in those distant, windowless plants in the '40s.
"Everything has changed," Albert Einstein said after the atomic bomb detonated above Hiroshima, "except the thinking of the people."