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Lifting the Curtain on Tennessee's Secret City

What to do in the city that brought us U-235: From switchgrass airplanes to Nuclear science merit badges.

To many readers, Oak Ridge, TN means "atom bomb" and memories of World War II. But to the scientists who worked and lived here at that time, it's the city that helped bring peace after six years of the planet's worst war, one which killed about 54 million people. More than 75,000 men and women (at a ratio of 1 to 2) worked feverishly for 22 months to convert many tons of uranium ore into enough U-235 to partly fill a five-gallon bucket, producing the first of the two atomic bombs for dropping on Japan that ended the war. The Oak Ridge production rate was small enough to be carried out in a briefcase by Army lieutenants, who traveled once or twice a week on passenger trains (via Chicago) to Los Alamos. "Maybe as few as 2,000 of the 75,000 people here knew what was going on, the rest simply worked for the war effort, doing their part in helping to win the war," says Bill Wilcox, Oak Ridge City Historian. Today, only a few veterans of that struggle remain, but the town is still proud to be known as "The Secret City."

Oak Ridge (about 28,000 pop. now) is full of smart folks, attracted by the nearly 11,000 jobs in the scientific community here, some in private firms, many in the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory and in the Y-12 National Security Complex. It's the kind of place where Boy and Girl Scouts can get a Nuclear Science Badge for learning "the basics of nuclear energy, radiation, atoms and reactors, using a hands-on approach (with) Geiger counters" and so forth. But the town's history is most impressive -- it's the birthplace, after all, not only of the bomb, but of nuclear medicine, civilian nuclear power, and more. More prosaically, discoveries here include dental x-ray shielding, multiple flu vaccines, touch-screen computer technology, longer lasting hip joints and surgical aneurysm clips.


There's a Secret City Festival on the third Friday and Saturday every June (June 20-21 in 2008), with singers, WWII Parade and re-enactments, tours, arts & crafts show, and more. Information at tel. 866/506-6285;


The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, operated by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the University of Tennessee-Battelle Corp., is one of the most amazing places on earth, even though you can see very little of what's going on. Already responsible for changing the world once by playing a part in birthing the second, plutonium, atomic bomb in 1945, it is getting ready to alter our universe again, by adapting nuclear energy to every kind of human endeavor, mainly through materials research. You can take a tour and see a bit of the activity, but unless you are a scientist or deep thinker yourself, you'll just have to take for granted how research here will change our lives. D. Ray Smith, Y-12 Historian, sums up what's going on by saying "This is the Oak Ridge where science continues to make history."

After two decades of inertia in the 1970s and '80s, the US began to take back leadership in this field of neutron science from the Europeans, who were miles ahead for a while. ORNL is partnering with universities, industry and scientists all over the world in user facilities such as the fabulous new Spallation Neutron Source, which is about ten times more powerful than existing neutron sources in Europe and Asia. Costing $1.4 billion and taking seven years to build, it opened in 2006. Essentially, they take "movies" of molecules in motion, making snapshots of the smallest samples of physical and biological materials.

Other ORNL firsts include being "the world's greatest facility for the study of materials" and having the world's most powerful unclassified computer, and having new facilities for genomics, nanotechnology, bioenergy and neutron scattering (ORNL is the birthplace of the latter, too). They also have the world's most powerful accelerator-based source of neutrons, and are working on biofuels such as ethanol from switchgrass. Among expected results of all this activity: lighter airplanes, better drug delivery systems and improved optical fibers, to mention only three things. Neutron science, by the way, has produced at least nine Nobel Prize laureates, including one Oak Ridge physicist, Clifford Shull (1994). Critics expect the new age of neutrons to begin a change as profound as that from the age of iron to the age of steel. More info at

The Y-12 National Security Complex of the DOE (operated by a Bechtel affiliate) is still, after 64 years, working hard to keep the USA strong. Some of its 4,700 employees are responsible for dismantling atomic bombs under our disarmament treaties, others for maintaining and making components for existing weapons.

You can check in at the Y-12 New Hope Visitors Center (opened in July of this year) and see exhibits of their important history, then see ORNL's Spallation Neutron Source and their famous X-10 Graphite Reactor, a National Historic Landmark since 1966. In operation from 1943 to 1963, it's a smallish room (but tall), where you can see a short film and a little display of memorabilia. Note the world's first nuclear-powered machine, a tiny steam engine in a case here. Details about Y-12 at


You can learn a lot at the American Museum of Science & Energy, operated by the Department of Energy, with nuclear history and explanations (think model reactor) on the main floor, general science (e.g. energy resources) upstairs. Here I saw my first (and probably last) professional bubble blower explaining friction and other scientific concepts to a large audience of kids and some parents. Admission $5. AMSE, 300 S. Tulane Avenue, Oak Ridge; tel. 865/576-3200;

US citizens age 10 and older can take a Public Bus Tour of the DOE's Oak Ridge Facilities on summer (June-September) weekdays through the Museum, tour included in museum admission charge, from noon through 2:30pm. In addition to the museum, you visit the ORNL Graphite Reactor (X-10), the Spallation Neutron Source Site (Fridays only), the East Tennessee Technology Park Visitor Overlook (on Highway 58, telling the K-25 story) and the New Bethel Church Interpretive Center. More info at tel. 865/576-3200 or

At the Children's Museum -- the best I have ever seen -- you can get a good digest version of Oak Ridge's history from 1933, when the Tennessee Valley Authority confiscated land here, to the present, in a series of panels and objects associated with the time. A room of family furniture and other items from the 1930s is especially evocative. Admission $6. Children's Museum, 461 West Outer Drive; tel. 865/482-1074,

The Secret City Scenic Excursion Train is only for train buffs, operating through the center of the K-25 complex to nowhere and back, with nothing of the old factory to see but a battered shell. US citizens only, nonetheless. Price $15. Southern Appalachia Railway Museum (which is just the train for now); tel. 865/241-2140;


It's unusual for such a small city to have its own ballet and orchestra, but Oak Ridge does. You should take time to visit the Art Center, where you can see works by local artists, many quite profound, amusing or both. Art Center, 201 Badger Avenue; tel. 865/482-1441,


Studios at the year-old Staybridge Suites start from $119 per night for a big living/bedroom combination, kitchenette with fridge, dishwasher and microwave, good-sized bathroom and closet space. There's a small store in the lobby sselling things like Stouffer's frozen dinners (lasagna $4) and ice cream, plus free continental breakfast and occasional evening snacks. Designed for stays of one night up to several weeks or more, Staybridge is connected to the InterContinental chain. Staybridge Suites, 420 S. Illinois Avenue; tel. 877/238-8889 or 865/298-0050;

Dining Out

The Flatwater Grill, open only recently, is clearly Oak Ridge's most sophisticated restaurant, with glorious daylight views of Melton Lake and excellent food. Their "hot lunches" cost just $7.50 (e.g. BBQ pork butts), dinners $12.95 (pot roast, "my mom's recipe"). I had a fine bow tie pasta with shrimp, artichoke hearts and basil crème sauce for $15.95, with a sweet potato casserole at $1.79 that could have been a dessert. Melton Lake Drive; tel. 865/862-8646.

For home cooking, you can't beat the Jefferson Soda Fountain, in business for a long time. Their mottos are "Not fast food, but good food fast" and "Home of the Myrtle Burger," Myrtle being the name of a former head chef, not a berry. I had breakfast here twice and loved the blueberry pancakes ($2.49 and up). Their K-25 Atomic Sampler is highly recommended, as is the Y-12 Breakfast Bomb, which is two eggs, bacon/sausage, grits, biscuits/gravy and one pancake for $6.49. 22 Jefferson Circle; tel. 865/482-1141.

Home style is still order of the day at Beans-n-Things, right on Jackson Square, where the meatloaf at $7.49 and bowl of pinto beans at $4.95 are the favorites, as well as my favorite side, mac and cheese at $1.69. In an original shop from the 1940s, Spartan décor and mighty clean. 201 Jackson Square; tel. 865/482-3112.

The Soup Kitchen offers a few sandwiches and salads, but you come here for the potage, which goes for $4.50 per bowl, seven varieties (out of 130) plus chili daily. I had a good potato cheddar, which comes with choice of daily homemade breads. They've been around more than 20 years. 47 E. Tennessee Avenue; tel. 865/482-3525;


The full story on Oak Ridge is available through the Oak Ridge Visitors Bureau; tel. 800/887-3429 or 865/482-7821;

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