Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project | The origins

In Part One of a three-part series, WVLT News looks at the City of Oak Ridge’s involvement in the Manhattan Project, and how the project changed East Tennessee.
Published: Jul. 19, 2023 at 6:48 PM EDT
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OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WVLT) - This Friday is the release of the much-anticipated “Oppenheimer” movie. It’s a war drama about the development of the atomic bomb in World War II.

Aug. 6 and 9, 1945 are two of the most notable days in American war history. Those were the days the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of people, essentially ending World War II in Asia.

The bombs themselves were the first use of atomic weapons in warfare in world history, and the development of them can be traced to East Tennessee.

“Before WWII, this area of East Tennessee was largely farmland, forests, a few small communities,” David Keim said, Communications Director for Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Keim told WVLT News that nuclear fission was discovered in 1938, which essentially allows scientists to split an atom.

“The scientific community understood this is a big deal,” Keim said. “We’ve discovered a new form of energy and if someone can control this the right way, it could make a nuclear bomb, which is unlike anything the world has seen before.”

Keim said it became a race to develop an atomic bomb, as Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany were becoming more powerful. Thus, the United States started the Manhattan Project in 1942.

“The Manhattan Project was to harness the atom and to create an atomic bomb,” Keim said. “And, to do it faster than Nazi Germany.”

To do it, the U.S. set up three main locations. Los Alamos, New Mexico, Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Keim said they chose Oak Ridge because it was far away from the coast, had access to the Tennessee Valley Authority for power, and it was secluded.

All three sites had different roles, and contributed to developing the atomic bomb.