Oak Ridge celebrates 75 years

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WATE) – Oak Ridge, also known as The Secret City, celebrated 75 years with a string of events over the past few weeks to mark its founding during the days of the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Ray Smith is a historian who says the city actually got started with a letter of bad news.

“She got this letter that gave her about 10 days to get off of her property,” said Smith, speaking about a resident of the area at the time.

It was to make room for a massive secret government project that went up fast with the buildings given code names – Y-12, K-25 and X-10. Those working on the project only knew their role and that it would help end the war and bring their loved ones home.

Of those 22,000 people, maybe 100 of them, the chemists, knew they were working with a heavy material with uranium. They wouldn’t have known what they were doing with it because it had never been done before,” Smith said.

Using an electromagnetic process, they were separating the Uranium 235 isotope from natural uranium for atomic weapons. Oak Ridge was the first in the world to accomplish this. Once enough Uranium 235 was separated, it was put into a bomb and then given the name Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945.

Related: Oak Ridge Fire Department to host ‘Then & Now’ parade

Three days later, a second bomb, named Fat Man, was dropped on Nagasaki and World War II soon came to an end, but the uranium separation project in Oak Ridge continued as the U.S. soon entered a cold war with the Soviet Union.

“During the Cold War, there were 8,000 people working at Y-12 around the clock making as many nuclear weapons components as they could make, to literally help break the Soviet Union’s economic backbone because they tried to match Y-12 one-for-one and couldn’t keep up,” said Smith.

At the same time, scientists discovered other ways to use the facility besides making just weapons.

“The same equipment, the same sites that separated the uranium for Little Boy, also separated those isotopes that are used to produce nuclear medicine,” said Smith.

Those radioactive substances are used today to diagnose and treat a variety of diseases and cancers.

After World War II ended, the population of The Secret City decreased dramatically and has steadily held around 30,000. While Oak Ridge still employs some of the brightest minds in the world, many chose to live elsewhere – something the mayor is trying to change.

“So we update our housing stock, that’s one thing. We’re obviously updating our retail, which has been a big issue for us, particularly when people relocate here. And third we will continue to maintain our cultural diversity,” said Mayor Warren Gooch.

The retail revitalization project is known as “Main Street Oak Ridge,” the tearing down of an old, empty mall and replacing it with a new modern look and popular stores. The area is expected to bring in $2 million a year in sales tax revenue once all the spots are full.

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