While at the Secret City Festival, which I wrote about here, I was lucky enough to snag a seat on the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Facilities Public Bus Tour. If lucky’s definition includes driving ten hours from New Orleans, staying in a shittastic motel and then rising with the chickens to ensure a spot on the bus. But the bus tour was neat!

The American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE) folks loaded up the visitors, most of whom had shown ID and registered hours earlier, and headed out to several sites nestled in the tens of thousands of acres set aside for the Manhattan Project. The sites included:

  • Y-12 New Hope Visitor Center (Not part of the Star Wars franchise.)
  • Bethel Valley Church and Cemetery
  • X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • Technology Park
  • K-25 Overlook

Plus lots of tour guide talking and out-the-window pointing.

Let’s step back and talk about what went on at Oak Ridge so you have a better idea of why these sites, except the church—I’m still foggy on that one, were included on the tour.

There was lots and lots of science happening at Oak Ridge in the Forties. Remember how the government came in and scooped up about 55,000 acres, resettled a bunch of people, and then set about building a secret government facility, including a secret town, to build the atomic bombs used in WWII? Okay, good. Groundwork laid.

For our purposes, the science at Oak Ridge led to building Little Boy and Fat Man. Little Boy and Fat Man were both atomic bombs, but the way each worked, and the fuel used for each was different. Little Boy used enriched uranium, while Fat Man used plutonium. We’ve talked about all of this before, so today we’re just going to assume that you know the differences between the types of detonation. I know—when you assume, you… make the story move along at a better pace.

Hanford’s B Reactor took care of the plutonium producing. We’ve already talked a lot about the B Reactor, and the speed with which it was up and running, and its sheer awesomeness. None of the B Reactor’s badassery would be possible without the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge. X-10 was a sort of model for the B Reactor. It was smaller in size and capacity—1248 fuel holes to the B Reactor’s 2004, but proved that we could refine plutonium. The B Reactor essentially scaled-up everything about the X-10 and was off and running into the future.

Now even though Oak Ridge built the prototype production reactor, which is awesome sauce, its true wheelhouse was uranium enrichment. Not only did the folks at Oak Ridge enrich a shit-ton of uranium, but they did it in three different ways. (Remember, this is when we were just baby nuclear scientists; we didn’t really know what would work best.) Uranium was enriched at three different sites—Y-12, K-25 and S-50 plants, using three different technologies. The Y-12 plant used electromagnetic separation via Calutrons (still the largest magnets in the world), while the K-25 plant used gaseous diffusion, and the S-50 plant used liquid thermal diffusion to enrich the uranium. S-50 was torn down after WWII, as the liquid thermal diffusion process was not nearly as efficient as the other methods, but the Y-12 plant is alive and well, and the K-25 plant is in hospice, but still lingering, and are both featured on the bus tour! Hooray!

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Our first stop on the bus tour was the Y-12 New Hope Visitor Center. Y-12 is still a very active facility. In fact, you know how nuclear nonproliferation has been kind of a big deal since the end of the Cold War, and especially since oh, the mid-Nineties? Have you ever wondered where all of that nonproliferated nuclear fuel ended up? Well, a lot of it ended up at the Y-motherfucking-12 plant. That’s right—Y-12 houses the world’s largest stockpile of enriched uranium, approximately enough for 16,000 nuclear weapons. If we lived in the world of Jericho, this would be where the packages, or at least the components of the packages, were en route to when snatched by the badies.1 Y-12 was initially set out to aid in the nonproliferation (that’s the actual term the use) of the USSR (or Mother Russia, as the tour guide kept referring to it), but has since assisted with the nonproliferation of about twenty other countries. Now I realize the politispeak is pretty thick with the “nonproliferation” and “assisted” and so on, and I really didn’t find much of anything that wasn’t written in such slogan-y language. What it seems happened, to me, anyway, is that we convinced the world to hand over most of their nuclear arms for decommissioning, or storage, or whatever excuse we gave to a particular country, and now have the largest stockpile of highly enriched uranium in the world, all nestled in a bucolic valley in Eastern Tennessee. That seems fair, right?

The politispeak was also thick on the tour that I didn’t realize that I was at the facility where practically all of the world’s uranium lived. Not to get all tinfoil hatty on you, but it seems pretty odd, that this was glossed-over, practically not even mentioned on the tour. Instead, we were ushered into a casual auditorium (read: carpeted stairs around a television) where we watched a video presentation about the history of the Calutron and their use in the electromagnetic separation of uranium-235 from uranium-238, and were then allowed to wander the few exhibits and given a generous gift bag, referred to as a package—I’m not even kidding—filled with DVDs, logos, stickers, pamphlets, and other awesomeness, before being ushered back to the bus and transported to our next location.

Our time at the Y-12 plant was abbreviated. Normally the plant is open to the public for tours during the Secret City Festival (a fact that I find astounding) but this year it wasn’t. Supposedly, it was a victim of government budget cuts. Now I say supposedly only half-heartedly; that likely is the reason why there were no tours. But, get this. Late last summer three Plowshares activists breached security at the site and made it all the way to the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, and spray-painted anti nuclear graffiti on the exterior of the place. Sequestration seems a pretty handy, PR-friendly excuse for tour cancellation than we’re afraid of our defenses being breeched again. Okay. Taking off my tinfoil hat.

Our next stop was the Bethel Valley Church and Cemetery. The church looks smack off the Little House on the Prairie lot, and the only reason I can possibly see for it being included on the tour is that it’s a really old building? I mean, they used it as a meeting place during the early stages of the Manhattan Project, because well, there weren’t any others, but other than that, it’s like every other old country church you’ve ever been in. At this stop we did learn that there are 31 cemeteries on the Oak Ridge Reservation, which seems like a whole lot for 55,000 acres or so. As far as I can tell, the proliferation of cemeteries in the area doesn’t have anything to do with the nuclear aspect of the site. This area was simply home to several little communities each with their own family-like cemetery. However, this did lead to a conversation about radiation poisoning, and the fact that the hospital in Oak Ridge apparently has an entire wing devoted to the study and treatment of radiation poisoning, which I suppose, this is probably the best spot in the world for a hospital wing devoted to such things. I wondered how many people had actually been treated at the hospital for dosing and whether or not they stocked those pills from On the Beach that allowed people to off themselves before the sickness got so bad that their intestines liquefied and started oozing from their bodies. That was gross. Sorry about that.

After the church chat, we returned to the bus. Next stop: X-10 Graphite Reactor! As I mentioned above, the X-10 was the model for the B Reactor. And here’s the thing: it actually looks like a high school kid’s diorama version of the real B Reactor. Now, I’m not trying to be mean here. If anything, it makes it more endearing. However, what is not endearing about the X-10, though it does add to the dioramaness of the whole thing, are the three creepy-ass, Dick Van Dyke-looking mannequins that are positioned in front of the reactor core. It’s basically like a deleted scene from the “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” episode of The Twilight Zone. Kicking it up notch on the creepiness scale is the fact that these mannequins were dressed in painters’ uniforms? See? Look how creepy:

The mannequins just stand there, forever loading fuel into the face of the reactor core.

Part of the diorama feel comes from the fact that everything is so much smaller than Hanford. And EBR-1 too, actually. I know, it was just the pilot reactor, and no, my pilot reactor wouldn’t have looked any better especially after seventy years, but I was just expecting something so much grander in “The Cradle of the Atomic Age.” Sigh.

After bathroom breaks and a short presentation, we were allowed to wander the Graphite Reactor for ten minutes or so. There were a few exhibits, and looking at old nuclear crap of any sort generally floats my boat, so it was good. But, you can definitely tell the place needs more money for upkeep. And maybe if the Manhattan Project National Historic Park is approved, it will finally get it.

Probably my favorite thing found while wandering the X-10, was this tiny steam engine and the accompanying Footnote to History shit-talking plaque. I tried to get a good picture of it, but alas, Ansel Adams I am not. The plaque explains that the tiny steam engine was powered by an aluminum can stuffed with ten uranium fuel slugs and then shoved into the “side holes” of the reactor core. The fuel was irradiated and heat was released, creating enough electricity to power a small flashlight-bulb. Normal, nuclear fun-fact right there, but the last paragraph is perfect:

“Thus the age of nuclear-generated electricity began here—and not (as most histories of the atomic era record) with the lighting of another bulb in December 1951 which was connected under more formal circumstances to Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 in Arco, Idaho.”

Oh snap. National Laboratory shit-talking at its finest. For the record, I’m #teamarco.

Here’s a pic looking up at the control room. The reactor core, shown in the image above with the Dick Van Dyke trio in front, is to the right in this photograph.

We next stopped at the very much still functioning Technology Complex where tons of science is still being performed at this very second. It’s all very Silicon Valley-ish. I’ll be honest—I didn’t pay attention at this stop. I am sure that Oak Ridge is making fantastic advances in science and generally doing very good work in current day, but, I prefer my nuclear stuff to be several decades old. Sorry modernity.

After the Silicon Valley, we next disembarked at the K-25 Overlook. The K-25 Overlook really gives a sense of scale to the whole site. All of the stops on the bus are several miles apart, and this is pretty easy to forget when sitting next to middle aged strangers and being regaled with stories of “Mother Russia” and “Obamacare” (I don’t even know) on the fun bus.

The K-25 Overlook literally looks out over the site of the K-25 plant. Now remember, overlooks are generally reserved for looking down on canyons, or quaint towns or are the hotel in The Shining. So think about the fact that a single building has an overlook. K-25 was the largest building in the world under one roof for several years. It was U-shaped and measured a half mile by 1,000 feet; that’s over 2,000,000 square feet. Giantropolis.

I wish this picture showed at all how big everything was. But at least it has a pretty, flowery bush in it?

As mentioned above, the K-25 plant separated uranium-235 from uranium-238. Uranium-235 is such a small part of wild (of mixed isotopes) uranium that an enormous space was needed to deal with the amount of wild uranium needed to secure an adequate amount of uranium-235 through gaseous diffusion. How does gaseous diffusion work? Well, it would be a lot easier for everyone concerned if you just believed me when I told you it was magic, but I don’t think you’re going to let me get away with that.

Gaseous diffusion works under the principle that molecules of a lighter isotope (U-235) would pass through a porous barrier (essentially a sieve) more easily than molecules of a heavier isotope (U-238). This was all done using a system of cascades. Here’s one of the cascades on display at the K-25 Overlook.

You can see my bus seatmate standing at the very left edge of the image. This should give you a sense of scale.

Only part of one of the wings (remember, U-shaped) is still standing, barely. It’s slated for complete demolition in 2014. I understand the why of the dismantling and demolishing of these Atomic Age ghosts, but I still don’t like it.

After the overlook, we began the drive back to Oak Ridge proper. Along the way, we skirted closer to the K-25 plant, and were treated to an even better view of it from a ridge. The scale of the thing is gobsmacking.

The bus dropped us off at the AMSE shortly after 3 PM. I passed up the festival foods for the promise of a Mexican restaurant across the street. The restaurant did not disappoint—I had some of the best Mexican food of my life while I replayed the three-hour tour over and over again in my brain and plotted the next day’s adventures at Dollywood (really) and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Where I of course got a new stamp for my passport.

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1 I know. But among the five of you who’ve watched Jericho, that’ll kill.