Part 2 of a series of memories shared by Resident Pete Jackson
Oak Ridge was a completely different place than Pittsburgh. It was built from scratch in 1943. The government needed an isolated place with access to a lot of electrical power. Eastern Tennessee fit the bill, so Oak Ridge was built in that location.. The TVA had built a number of hydroelectric facilities in the area. Many of the streams were dammed up, widened or re-routed to provide cheap electrical power.
This part of Tennessee is beautiful. It is in the midst of the rolling hills of Appalachia and Oak Ridge was built in a remote area.. Also, coal was plentiful in the area, so coal-powered plants were built in addition to the hydroelectric ones. Because of all the dams and waterways, fishing, boating, water-skiing, etc. were nearby.
Originally the town was built for about 15,000 people but ended up with 45,000 by the end of the war. It was hastily built. People compared it to a frontier town which, in fact, it was. It had minimal facilities, and this didn’t improve until after the war. The atomic facility was located nearby. Various buildings in the facility were spread out and placed in the valleys of the Appalachian washboard. This was done partly for security and partly in case of accidents. When I got there, much improvement had been made but vestiges of the “old Oak Ridge” still remained. There were still prefab homes, barracks-type apartments, and unpaved roads.
The town was somewhat like being on an army base. My apartment was one of those that looked like army barracks except that the building was compartmentalized into rooms with thin plasterboard. It was easy to listen to what was going on in the neighbor’s apartment. There were two girls living next door to my roommate and me. We would sometimes listen in on each other. Even though our apartments were not luxurious, everyone managed pretty well. All apartments had a minimal amount of furniture.
The group that gathered at Oak Ridge was as diverse as the group at Carnegie, only they came from many more places. We spent the first day there getting physicals, having pictures taken for our badges, and going through a psychological exam to make sure we were not a security risk. Our full field background check by the FBI had already taken place. Badges allowed us to go anywhere that the staff would approve. The badges contained a strip of photo film. We exchanged our badges once a week. When we turned one in, the film was checked for radiation exposure. To the best of my knowledge, no one in my class had any measurable radiation exposure.
We had classes that paralleled those of Carnegie Tech but were more slanted to experiments that we would be doing. They consisted of regularly handling various radioactive substances. All of our “homework” was done on-site for security reasons. That gave us evenings and weekends free. We had much more free time at Oak Ridge than we had at Carnegie Tech. There was no homework. All reports were written on-site. That allowed us to get involved in other activities. We had a bowling team and a softball team. I was on both. Some of the students played golf. There was a movie theater and a shopping center. I remember the shopping center having a nice book store. Within 10 miles were lakes formed when the TVA was built, so some of the guys would take their wives for a picnic or fish or swim. It was all available. All in all, Oak Ridge was a great experience. I didn’t meet any famous scientists but I witnessed a lot of history.
For me, the experiments were the best part. Two were notable. One was assembling a small water-cooled reactor and the other was doing an experiment on the large graphite reactor. We were asked to assemble and start up a reactor called a swimming pool reactor because it was immersed in a tank of water shaped much like a swimming pool. The water acted as a coolant for the reactor. The process of assembling the reactor is a long one because it has to be assembled from fuel rods, each about ten feet long and six inches wide. The final assembly is a grouping of rods about four feet by four feet. After each rod is placed in the grid, a measurement of the radiation level is made and recorded and then a control rod is withdrawn slightly to increase the radiation rate. Each person in the class took a turn installing a rod. Just by chance, I happened to be the last to participate. I put the last rod in, took the measurement, and withdrew a control rod just enough to make the reactor go critical. “Critical” is when the reactor is capable of self-sustained operation. At that point, it can produce power in the form of heat. I felt proud to be able to do that. It is a tricky process and is something not many people get to do. The operators at Chernobyl found that out the hard way!
The other experimental area that I liked was working with the X-10 reactor. It was the second reactor ever built and was used during WWII to make plutonium for the atomic bomb. When I was there, it was primarily used for making various substances for medical radiology. That reactor is now decommissioned and is on the list of national historic sites and can be visited by anyone. The scientists didn’t know what process was going to work best so various approaches were tried at the same time. This took a lot of space and people. Time had been short during WWII, so the usual procedure of building test prototypes was ignored and things went right to the full scale on the first try. As it worked out, very little was planned at all. The amazing thing about the whole operation is that things worked!
When I got back to my regular job, I found that work on the nuclear plane was canceled. The shielding required was just too much for the concept to be effective. I had a wonderful experience, however, and would not have missed it for anything. The Navy was getting into data processing for target detection, tracking, identification and intercept. I moved smoothly into that and was involved in that line of work for the rest of my career.