Oak Ridge Reservation, Oak Ridge

The Oak Ridge Reservation, which includes Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), was known as “Site X” when it was established in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project; many of those who knew about Los Alamos were unaware of Oak Ridge. It was here that methods of separating and producing fissionable uranium and plutonium were perfected along with other essential technologies for building nuclear weapons. While most of the activity involves non-classified research by ORNL, there is still some Top Secret Stuff going on. And, like the Savannah River Site (see SOUTH CAROLINA), there are big problems with nuclear waste cleanup.

The Oak Ridge Reservation, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is located on over 35,000 acres approximately 25 miles northwest of Knoxville. From its inception, the mission of Oak Ridge was research instead of production or operations. For example, the techniques for producing fissionable uranium and plutonium were developed at Oak Ridge, but large-scale production of those materials took place at Hanford Reservation (see WASHINGTON) and the Savannah River Site (see SOUTH CAROLINA). At one point during World War II, the then-largest building in the world was built at Oak Ridge to store uranium. Current employment at Oak Ridge is about 4,000 persons and over 1,200 buildings.


After World War II, Oak Ridge’s activities expanded to include a wide range of advanced research areas, many of them non-military and non-classified. Today, the vast majority of Oak Ridge’s activities are not secret, but substantial Top Secret Stuff most dealing with nuclear weapons still goes on here. And Oak Ridge is worth a visit for no other reason than it’s one of the birthplaces of Top Secret America.

What’s There: The remaining Top Secret Stuff at Oak Ridge is being carried on at the Y-12 National Security Complex, formerly known as the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant. According to its official Department of Energy description, “Programs at Y-12 include manufacturing and reworking nuclear weapon components, dismantling nuclear weapon components returned from the national arsenal, serving as the nation’s safe, secure storehouse of special nuclear materials, reducing the global threat from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and providing the U.S. Navy with safe, militarily effective nuclear propulsion systems.” You can at least get a glimpse of this building on the public tour described below.

Building 2926 is the radioactive materials analytical laboratory, where small quantities of fissionable materials and much larger quantities of radioactive materials are stored and handled during tests. Building 3027 is the special nuclear materials vault; this is used to store radioactive materials other than uranium or plutonium, such as tritium.

One of the more interesting artifacts at Oak Ridge is the molten salt reactor housed in Building 7503. The molten salt reactor operated from 1965 to 1969, and reactor cooling and heat exchange functions were performed by salt heated to its melting point. The reactor was shut down when the molten salt was discovered leaking from several valves. In 1994, the uranium still inside the dormant reactor was found to have “migrated” within the reactor, creating the potential for release of radioactive gases, heat-generating chemical reactions, and, most ominously, runaway nuclear chain reactions. Corrective actions since 1994 have greatly reduced the possibility of runaway nuclear reactions but accidental release of nuclear gases is still a threat.

Getting a Look Inside-. Oak Ridge offers public tours from May to September. Tours are conducted by bus, and include ORNL, the Y-12 complex (or at least a glimpse of its buildings from your bus window), and the East Tennessee Industrial Park, an area now devoted to civilian companies. The only place where the bus stops and you can get out is the Graphite Reactor Museum, the site of one of Oak Ridge’s first reactors. The visitor services office has the latest tour schedule and other information, and their phone number is (865) 574-7199. Several Oak Ridge buildings, including the Y-12 complex, can be glimpsed from Scarboro Road, as described below.

Unusual Fact: In a series of reports appearing in August 1997 issues, the Nashville Tennessean described how several persons who lived near Oak Ridge, but who had never worked at the facility, were suffering from unusual patterns of illnesses and conditions their doctors could not explain. Symptoms included muscle tremors, memory losses, blurred vision, joint pain, skin rashes, slurred speech, and weakened immune systems. While there has been no known large release of radioactive materials at Oak Ridge, it is acknowledged that small quantities of such materials and non-radioactive toxins escaped into the area’s water, soil, and air, especially in the early years of Oak Ridge’s operation. Some have speculated that combinations of various materials are responsible for the conditions; there is very little data on the effects of long-term exposures to low levels of toxins, and virtually no data on the impact of long-term exposure to low levels of radioactive materials.

Unfortunately, the people living around Oak Ridge might be providing that data.

Getting There: From downtown Oak Ridge, travel south on Illinois Avenue; remain in the right lane. At the intersection of Illinois and Scar-boro Road/Lafayette Road, turn right on to Scarboro. Along Scarboro you will see some Oak Ridge buildings on your right. Continue until you reach the intersection with Bethel Valley Road; turn right toward the visitor entrance. Unless you have been approved in advance for a tour or someone at Oak Ridge is expecting you, they won’t be happy to see you.

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