Atomic Awesome

America’s Secret Government Town Part Deux

Construction of the K-25 Plant with one of the original homes in the area.

Within 3 years, the government had built a bustling city. One that technically didn’t exist, yet was important to our understanding of the atom. Technically called the Clinton Engineer Works, the name Oak Ridge was chosen in 1943 to give the town a more civilian sounding name.

The site was chosen because of easy access to water (thanks to the newly built Norris Dam) and power. The government then issued the residents of the several small farm towns in the area eviction notices, with some being forced out in as little as two weeks. This use of force and government power created tension between the other towns in the area and the residents of Oak Ridge that lasted throughout the Manhattan Project.

It also didn’t help that the town was surrounded by a fence with guard towers.

The Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, TN

Three plants, the Y-12, S-50 and K-25, were to produce U-235. A fourth plant, the X-10, was a pilot plant to work out the production kinks for plutonium. These plants were situated so the natural landscape would protect the plants should one of them blow. They didn’t want a domino effect taking out all four plants, the town, and who knows what else.

In 1959, the federal government handed over control of the town to a democratically elected city manager and city council. Today, the Y-12 plant is still used for nuclear material processing and storage. The S-50 plant was demolished soon after World War II. The K-25 plant was in operation until the mid-1980s and is currently being decommissioned and cleaned. The X-10 plant is now the home of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

[Image Credits: US Department of Energy]

  • "This use of force and government power created tension between the other towns in the area and the residents of Oak Ridge"

    sigh… is that not surprising.

    Badger Ammunition plant in Wisconsin did much the same back in the day. Now it is being decommissioned and cleaned. With special interest groups fighting over the land. Which is even worse.


    • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

      Yesterday I linked to the history of Weston IL. It's where FNAL is now. Anyway one aspect is that this was during a time when the economy was particularly rough in this area. The developer that was building there was in really rough shape. The town was really excited about selling off to the gov. But they sold it to the homeowners like, "It will be great, you'll all get jobs here at the lab!" That's not what happened, some people were upset about that, remember it was high unemployment in the area at the time. At least they got good prices for the homes according to most.

  • aastrovan

    And now we know "the rest of the story"
    Must have been hard for the folks that had property,
    And then did not.All at the whim of some government lackey.

    • tonyola

      Welcome to the concept of "eminent domain". First, it was wartime and the US was technically in a state of martial law. Second, though I'm sure it was difficult for the folks who were evicted, they were compensated for their land.

      • true, but Uncle Sam's opinion of fair market value may differ from the actual fair market value.

        • tonyola

          It depends on how badly the US wants the land, too. There were several families in East Central Florida who made out like bandits when the government bought up land for what became the Kennedy Space Center.

        • At that point a court usually decides the matter. A co-worker is currently dealing with the state DOT on buying a rental house he has, they need to widen the road and would take the entire drain field for the septic tank at the house. It really sucks that the real estate market is currently at rock bottom and they only pay fair market value. Also, my grandfather was an attorney with the power company. He specialized in right of way/condemnation/eminent domain stuff.

    • TNRonin

      I'm a history teacher that lives in the area. I have studied this area somewhat to say the least. There was very little resistance to the government coming in. There were too many benefits to Oak Ridge existing for the locals. Generally it is the outsiders who have no clue, and comment about such matters. We understood that need to end the war, and helped to that end. Enough said.

  • The story about Oak Ridge that stuck with me is that they hired illiterate garbage men to work at the plants there. They didn't want anybody reading anything secret that might be throw away by mistake.

  • coupeZ600

    When the mines shut down in Bisbee in the mid-70's, Phelps Dodge moved a bunch of the laid-off miners to it's other mines in Ajo or Morenci, but some were given the option to move here with a hefty bonus because of it's remoteness. Then they laid them all off again.