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American Museum of Science and Energy.
Mushroom cloud rises above the museum's mushroom-shaped Van de Graaff generator.

American Museum of Science and Energy

Field review by the editors.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee

In World War II the U.S. government took a barely populated backwater and transformed it into Oak Ridge, the fifth largest city in Tennessee. The only job of its 75,000 resident workers was to refine enough uranium to make the "Little Boy" Hiroshima bomb. They did, America won the war, and then... what happened to Oak Ridge? Telling that story is the purpose of the broadly-named American Museum of Science and Energy, re-opened in June 2019.

American Museum of Science and Energy.
Push the button, fire up the High Flux Isotope Reactor.

This attraction began in the 1960s as the American Museum of Atomic Energy and has gone through several iterations, makeovers, and moves since then. This latest version greets visitors with a talking, video-projected globe that describes, at length, Oak Ridge's modern contributions to carbon-free electric power and nuclear medicine. "Oak Ridge is transforming our world," says the talking globe. We tried hard not to think: evil computer.

The museum is divided into five sections, arranged in rough chronological order. Only the first and part of the second cover what formerly filled the entire Atomic Museum. Much has been winnowed since then. Several of the new displays -- like the talking globe -- seem better geared for a travel industry trade show than a museum, and the most interactive (and noisy) exhibits are on the other side of the building. At times it seems as if the museum is trying to make you forget what you saw earlier in the museum.

American Museum of Science and Energy.
Oak Ridge craftspeople built the Apollo moon boxes, impervious to lunar germs.

We get it: atom bombs are bad, and the American Museum of Science and Energy would rather you associate Oak Ridge with cancer-fighting isotopes than with wiping out a Japanese city. But we were still surprised to find the old museum's replica Little Boy -- the entire reason for Oak Ridge's existence -- now consigned to the new museum's rafters, an awkward relic barely visible in the dark.

American Museum of Science and Energy.
"Oak Ridge Makes the World Safer" with the help of leak-proof uranium storage barrels.

Oak Ridge has in recent years become America's warehouse for old atom bombs. The U.S. keeps them around -- like the hulks in the Aircraft Boneyard -- in case they're needed again, or to be torn apart for parts to use in other bombs. One display described this as Oak Ridge's "life extension program," kind of like human cryogenics but with nuclear weapons.

Also stored in Oak Ridge are tons of the supercharged uranium that makes bombs explode; visitors are encouraged to lift a (simulated) can of the stuff to feel how heavy it is. Oak Ridge gathers this dangerous material from across the globe and turns some of it into slightly less dangerous material for nuclear reactors. "Today," says this exhibit, "the lights in your home may be powered by fuel made from dismantled Soviet weapons!"

These weapons, built to produce vast amounts of chaos and rubble, have to be machined to microscopic perfection. Oak Ridge's experience in this area was tapped by NASA for its Apollo "moon boxes," one of which is on display. Each box -- there were 72 of them -- had to be carved out of a single, perfectly solid block of aluminum so precisely that once the box was filled with moon rocks and snapped shut, no moon germs could escape.

American Museum of Science and Energy.
Small historical display shows workers loading the X-10 Reactor.

Much of what goes on at Oak Ridge is still secret, making it a source of conspiracy theories ranging from aliens-on-ice to nuclear wormholes. The museum chooses to ignore those, but does devote an exhibit to a conspiracy theory that Oak Ridge debunked: the belief that President Zachery Taylor (1849-1850) was assassinated by arsenic poisoning. The former President was dug out of his grave, and Oak Ridge then took strands of his hair and scraps of his fingernails and bombarded them with neutrons. Analysis of the results revealed no arsenic, and Oak Ridge concluded that Taylor died of cholera. The tiny, blackened hair and nails are among the few presidential body parts on display anywhere.

The majority of the museum pushes science rather than history, although the focus remains on Oak Ridge. Visitors can walk through an "air shower" used to decontaminate scientists as they enter the nanotechnology lab, or operate an ORNL supercomputer with an Xbox controller. There are exhibits on the High Flux Isotope Reactor and the Spallation Neutron Source, as well as Oak Ridge's experiments with 2D graphene and superhydrophobic materials. Much is made of Oak Ridge's role in "clean energy," although a showcase of dummies in hazmat suits reminds visitors that the town wasn't built on wind power. There are still places in Oak Ridge that would kill the average tourist.

American Museum of Science and Energy.
Parts of Oak Ridge can only be visited dressed like this.

Scattered throughout the museum's exhibits are hints of the wonders-still-to-come from Oak Ridge, such as ultrasonic clothes dryers, highway guardrails that wirelessly charge passing vehicles, and a process to turn trees into gasoline. One staffer told us that Oak Ridge aided the development of the pretzel M&M. There's no display on that in the museum, so we're left to wonder if the candy was an offshoot of Oak Ridge's nanophase materials research, or perhaps just a serendipitous atomic mutation.

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American Museum of Science and Energy

American Museum of Science and Energy

511 E. Main St., Oak Ridge, TN
TN-62/S. Illinois Ave. into town. Turn north at the stoplight onto S. Tulane Ave. Turn right at the Reality Center onto Wilson St. Turn right at the second stop sign. You'll see the museum ahead on the left.
Su-M 1-5, Tu-Th 9-5, F 9-8, Sa 9-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $8.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

X-10 Nuclear ReactorX-10 Nuclear Reactor, Oak Ridge, TN - < 1 mi.
International Friendship BellInternational Friendship Bell, Oak Ridge, TN - < 1 mi.
Atom Age GatehouseAtom Age Gatehouse, Oak Ridge, TN - 5 mi.
In the region:
The Museums at Biblical Times, Pigeon Forge, TN - 40 mi.

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