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Nuclear Reactor.

X-10 Nuclear Reactor

Field review by the editors.

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.

X-10 Reactor Control Room.

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.

But the highlight of the tour is its stop at the X-10 nuclear reactor, the oldest in the world.

The reactor -- which began its first chain reaction on November 4, 1943 -- 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.

Wake up Mr. Fermi!
"Wake up, Mr. Fermi!"

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 that early November night to the news that the reactor was working (and hadn't blown up).

Model of the
Model of the "Hospital in a Box," one of many esoteric projects spearheaded at Oak Ridge.

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."

X-10 Nuclear Reactor

511 E. Main St., Oak Ridge, TN
Bus tours depart from in front of the American Museum of Science and Energy in downtown Oak Ridge. Must be U.S. citizen with photo ID. No children under 10. First come, first seated; no advance reservations.
Tours leave 11:30am and take 3 hours. June-Aug M-F, fewer days Mar-May, Sep-Nov. (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

American Museum of Science and EnergyAmerican Museum of Science and Energy, 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:
Rebel Grave of Horne Brothers, Knoxville, TN - 19 mi.

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