20/12/20174 min read
A few miles north west of Knoxville, is a town that was never supposed to exist. A secret city named Oak Ridge. The town is 10 miles long and 2 miles wide surrounded by barbed wire fence. In 1942, the govt bought out the farmers that lived there and the area was flooded with engineers. Of the 75,000 people who worked here, only 1% knew what was really going on. At the time it took 1/5th of the electricity of the US
This was part of the Manhattan project. The secret government program to build the first atomic bomb.
At one of the public sites there’s the historical park which has a museum of science and energy. Lots of cool stuff here. Most interestingly though, this is where we’re gonna get our instructions for building the bomb. The bomb works by spitting atoms. Then it sets of a concordance of other splits. This releases energy which is the famous e=mc2. When the isotopes slip, the leftover particles disappear being converted into a large amount of energy.
The best atom for this is uranium. Uranium is common, but it’s hard to get. And on top of that, only a fraction of that is the usable version, isotope 235. Elements have a common formation, but sometimes they are found with extra or less neutrons. These rare versions are called isotopes. The common elements are mostly stable and don’t react well. We found that a rare version of uranium U235 is pretty good for exploding. How rare? About 1 in 140 atoms of uranium is the exploding kind. That’s what keeps people from making nukes.
Oh and by the way, this is just for the first atomic bomb, little boy. There are several ways to make a big explosion.
Oak Ridge here was all about getting that rare uranium, U235. There are two main sites to the facilities here that I’ll talk about. X-10 graphite reactor, Y12 electromagnetic separation. Sounds complicated.
The X-10 Graphite Reactor was the first reactor built after the successful experimental. using a lattice of graphite blocks and uranium rods, Enrico Fermi proved that a nuclear chain reaction could be controlled. Consider this the proof of concept testing facility.
The Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge used the electromagnetic separation method, developed by Ernest Lawrence at University of California-Berkeley, to separate uranium isotopes, and was the most developed way to produce fissile material at the start of the Manhattan Project. This one is simple to explain, the isotope that we need is smaller than normal. The lighter isotope travels quicker so they would have all the atoms “race” down long pipes and collect the winners. Those were U235. Later on other methods came to be created to separate the uranium. 95% U235 is called enriched uranium, what’s left after that is depleted uranium.
For the first bomb, little boy, they shot a “bullet” of uranium into a another piece of uranium. This set off the reaction that we’ve all come to know and love watching in movies. My first degree path in college was theoretical physics so this sort of stuff is pretty interesting to me.
There’s also a cool kids science area where you can see all sorts of gadgets and other shiny things. While most of the federal projects here have been reduced, the area’s biggest economic driver is still federal research. Oak ridge still has a large national laboratory under the Department of energy. In fact it’s one of the largest national laboratory in the system by it’s sheer size and budget. It’s home to several of the world’s top supercomputers including the world’s fifth most powerful supercomputer, Titan. Which is primarily used in molecular scale physics models.
The specific sites of the some of the refineries that made the u235 for the bombs have been decommissioned and demolished. If I recall correctly, they’re now the come to office spaces for tech companies.
The whole city is pretty fascinating, and I’ve you’ve ever seen the SyFy tv show called Eureka it reminds me a lot of that. Unknown from the outside, but inside technology is years ahead. (The show was Starring Colin Ferguson, whom for several years I thought was Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs) If anyone knows of any secret cities recruiting an aspiring polymath who drives around the country in a van, let me know.
So as you can see, making a nuclear bomb in your van is pretty simple. Just get yourself some uranium 235 and you’re half way there.