X-10 Nuclear Reactor
Oak Ridge, Tennessee
During World War II, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (known then as the Clinton Engineer Works) was where Uncle Sam made fuel for America's atom bombs. Several mysterious facilities -- X-10, Y-12, K-25, S-50 -- took everyday uranium and supercharged it into kindling for a nuclear fireball.
And now the Lab offers a bus tour.
The tour takes three hours, much of it in travel time, because the formerly top-secret reservation extends over 90 square miles and several secluded valleys. There are stops at an overlook to gaze at what remains of the K-25 plant -- still off-limits -- and to visit the New Bethel Baptist Church, one of the few structures left standing after the government condemned the land and wiped four small towns off the map. The Y-12 History Center (another stop) does its best to tell people what Oak Ridge did and still does, which ranges from storing America's entire supply of bomb-grade uranium to building the sealed "moon boxes" that protected Earth people from Moon rocks and vice-versa.
But the highlight of the tour is its stop at the X-10 nuclear reactor, the oldest in the world.
The reactor is a 24-foot-square block of graphite, weighing several hundred tons, encased in a seven-foot-thick reinforced concrete cube. Over a thousand horizontal tubes pierce the reactor end-to-end. Men in flimsy safety suits would take long sticks and shove raw uranium into the reactor, piece after piece, and by the time it fell out the other end, it had transformed into explosive plutonium. X-10 was built during World War II to see if this voodoo science would work (and work without blowing up). When it did (and didn't) the reactors at Hanford took over and made most of the plutonium that vaporized Trinity and Nagasaki.
The X-10 reactor became a tourist attraction during the 1982 Knoxville World's Fair, which also gave America the Sunsphere. Many of the displays in the X-10 building date to that time, including a mural of Enrico Fermi being awoken on the night of November 4, 1943, to the news that the reactor was working (and hadn't blown up).
Until 9/11 you could simply drive to the X-10 reactor whenever you liked, but the endless War on Terror ended that. Now X-10 can only be reached as part of the bus tour, and photos of the building's exterior are strictly forbidden.
Over the decades since its inception, Oak Ridge has been populated by thousands of scientists and engineers, and the initial WMD research has spawned some unexpected progeny. The success of X-10, for example, led to the construction of a dozen additional reactors at Oak Ridge. Their work, we were told, included atomic sleuthing to determine if President Zachary Taylor had been killed by poison (he wasn't) and if President Kennedy had been shot by Lee Harvey Oswald (inconclusive).
Oak Ridge hopes to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which would extend the bus tour into currently off-limits areas of the reservation. But its supporters concede that it's years away, and we suspect that the star of the tour will always be X-10. It's too eerie, too historic, too much of an Atom Age icon.
A cooling pipe burst in the reactor in 1963. It was shut down shortly thereafter. Fred Strohl, our guide, said that there were no lingering radioactive "hot spots" in the building, a fact confirmed by decades of nosy tourists with Geiger counters. In theory, if you had a long stick and around 30 tons of uranium, you could start X-10 up again -- although Fred said you probably wouldn't want to do that. "Chernobyl was a graphite reactor," he said. "You saw what happened there."