American Museum of Science & Energy
Oak Ridge, Tennessee
In its halcyon, pro-nuke buzz days, it was called the American Museum of Atomic Energy. Visitors were encouraged to have their dimes turned into "atomic dimes" -- irradiated in a special "isotope cabinet." But the museum stopped that after 1968, and changed its name in 1978.
Since then the AMSE has had to please two different camps, one wanting to celebrate America's nuclear prowess and the other wanting to stick it in a dark corner somewhere and celebrate biodiesel and wind turbines. This creates odd juxtapositions and omissions. A life-size replica of the Hiroshima bomb hangs next to a sign that reads, "Protecting Employees and Community."
Atomic stuff is still here, but so are solar panels on the museum's roof ("One of the largest solar power arrays in the Southeast."). There's a big exhibit on Einstein ("he laid the groundwork for splitting atoms") and the letter that he wrote to President Roosevelt in 1939, urging development of atomic fission -- but no mention of his equally urgent letter of 1945, begging FDR to stop.
Oak Ridge was born in 1942, when the U.S. government told the people who lived in these hills and hollows to pack up and get out. Their small farms were replaced by a gigantic industrial complex that refined useless uranium 238 into fissionable uranium 235 -- the explosive that packed the bomb that vaporized Hiroshima.
As it turned out, the "race against the Axis Powers to create the first atomic bomb!" -- a focal point of the museum -- existed only in the sweaty imaginations of the Americans and the British. The Nazis, as one small display makes clear, essentially gave up on nuclear weapons in 1942 when their feeble atomic pile exploded. The Japanese never got past the theoretical stage.
The "Oak Ridge: The Secret City" gallery -- placed behind a chain link fence and a fake guard tower -- takes you through the years 1943-1945, and emphasizes the average people who worked at the secret plants, not what they worked on. There are displays about war bonds and rationing stamps and victory gardens, and a photo of a worn tire with a hole in it. Visitors learn that there was a lot of mud in Oak Ridge, that housing was primitive, that laundry service was spotty, and that the workers sometimes had to stand in long lines to buy their cigarettes. Americans, sacrificing for the war.
Because Oak Ridge only made the stuff that went into the bomb, not the bomb itself, its "Secret City" exhibits are more technical than tactical. One display is of a Beta Control Unit, a black panel of knobs and dials that was used to monitor one of the hundreds of cyclotrons in the Y-12 plant. Another is titled "The 'birth certificate' of the Atomic Age" and displays a section of a galvanometer graph that shows that a chain reaction was underway in the X-10 reactor. Resting above it is one of the reactor's original graphite bricks. That's about as exciting as it gets.
Perhaps we were crankier than we should have been on our visit because this museum suffers from a deadly combination of track lighting and exhibits mounted behind plexiglass. Any photos that you take will almost certainly be obscured with annoying light reflections, unless you're a fancy-pants photographer with a tripod, a remote flash, and a polarized lens filter. For a place that's all about energy, it should have better lighting.
Upstairs is the "Cleanup of the Manhattan Project" display and the "Y-12 and National Defense" gallery. There are attempts to enliven geothermal and coal power in "Earth's Energy Resources," and kid-friendly exhibits such as optical illusions and robots and a plasma ball. The "Atoms and Atom-Smashers" show uses a Van De Graaff generator to make some lucky youngster's hair stand on end. This is an old-fashioned crowd pleaser, a relic of the atomic dime days, and still the most popular attraction at the museum.
Making bombs that can blow up cities is exciting; cleaning up the consequences of making them is not. The museum, however, tries to make the best of it.
One exhibit features what we called the "zombie cam," where visitors can see how they would look to a camera mounted in a remote-controlled airplane that flies over hazardous waste sites. How this works, and why the camera makes you look like a radioactive zombie, is not explained -- or perhaps the explanation is merely lost in the veiled corporate english that peppers these displays, with references to "waste cells" and "the environmental management waste management facility," and the need to "correct the legacies" of nuclear bomb-making.
The Y-12 and National Defense gallery is one of the most satisfying. It exhibits several replica A- and H-bombs as well as two different-size nuclear shells for the atomic cannon. Above, in the gloom, lost beyond the flare of the track lighting, hangs a replica of Little Boy, the bomb that put Oak Ridge on the map.
Against the wall, behind glare-splattered plexiglass, stands a dummy dressed in a yellow anti-radiation suit. "Clothing is provided at no cost to the workers," explains a sign. "Depending on the job's requirements, these items can cost more than $300 per person."
The Y-12 plant still operates at Oak Ridge, off-limits to outsiders. Although it no longer enriches uranium, it stores a lot of the stuff that has been enriched over the decades, and continues to build parts for nuclear weapons. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is currently pushing "Spallation Neutron Source," and the museum devotes an entire gallery to this "peaceful technology for the 21st Century." But that does not make it a good exhibit, or even comprehensible, and despite this museum's best efforts it will never be as exciting as building a bomb.