Swords to plowshares in Oak Ridge

Pictured is equipment at the Y-12 National Security Complex that helped separate uranium during World War II and other elements following the war that greatly assisted important scientific research.

D. Ray Smith

The Beta 3 Calutrons at the Y-12 National Security Complex, the last remaining Manhattan Project- era electromagnetic separation equipment, have received a substantial amount of attention lately. A couple thousand people were allowed to view them during a series of public tours in June that were associated with the Secret City Festival. This was the first time they have been open to the public.

It all started at an annual labor management prayer breakfast in December 2004 when Oak Ridge Mayor David Bradshaw asked Dennis Ruddy, BWXT Y-12’s president and general manager, if it would be possible to allow the public to see the Beta 3 calutrons during the June 2005 Secret City Festival. It has been the spark that has created a ground swell of historic preservation activities surrounding the Beta 3 calutrons at Y-12.

The main feature of the calutrons at Y-12 during the Manhattan Project was their use to separate uranium-235 from the more abundant uranium-238 found in natural uranium. The percentage of uranium-235 in uranium ore is only 0.7%. Separating that scarce material required a specialized process and was highly labor intensive. Around 22,000 people working around the clock for one full year on 1,152 calutrons separated 50 kilograms of the extremely rare and valuable material. Enough for the first atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” that was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

That along with Fat Man – a plutonium bomb, dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 - led to the end of World War II. Some say this action potentially saved more than a million lives that might have been lost during a land invasion of Japan.

This uranium story is better known that the rest of the story of the Beta 3 Calutrons at Y-12. When the war ended, K-25 and its Gaseous Diffusion Process had just become fully operational. It was a far more efficient process for separating (enriching) uranium. The Y-12 calutrons (with their 13,700 tons of silver) were dismantled and removed from eight of the nine major buildings at Y-12. Only the calutrons in Building 9731, the Pilot Facility and Building 9204-3 (Beta 3) were not removed. The initial reason was to continue experiments to improve the proficiency of the calutron process. This proved to be impossible to do with any degree of success. But the people at Y-12 were not through.

Almost immediately the scientists at Y-12 realized that the calutrons were capable of being used to separate not just uranium, but most any element in the periodic table! This was a tremendous leap in knowledge and realized as potentially very significant. This scientific realization provided what was arguably to become an even more important contribution of the Beta 3 calutrons than the uranium-235 separated for the first atomic bomb. However, this particular aspect of the service to mankind made by the people and equipment first built for wartime use has not been recognized and has not been given its due credit.

In the May 2005 issue of Physics Today, William E. Parkins’ article “The Uranium Bomb, the Calutron, and the Space Charge Problem,” concludes with the following summary: “The most important legacy of the project (the Y-12 calutrons) has been the contribution to science, technology, and medicine made possible through the use of separated isotopes of nearly all the elements of the periodic table. Hundreds of kilograms have been prepared for research and diagnostics in physics, chemistry, earth sciences, biology, and medicine. This service has been provided at cost for almost 60 years through the use of calutrons in the pilot units and Beta tracks at Y-12, all operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Nationally and internationally, thousands of customers and millions of medical patients have benefited.”

Parkins’ reference for the above statement is an article by L. O. Love in Science magazine.

Parkins goes on to say, “The development and use of the calutron to produce enriched uranium for the first atomic bomb that was exploded in warfare, and then to produce the full spectrum of separated isotopes for uses in peacetime, is the greatest example of beating swords into plowshares in the history of human kind. For its contribution in both wartime and peacetime, the physics profession can be proud.”

Oak Ridge can be proud of the accomplishment of its citizens who contributed over the years to this most significant achievement that Parkins calls the “greatest example of beating swords into plowshares in the history of human kind.”

People like Joe Tracy and Scott Aaron who have managed this program and the numerous people who have done the exacting and precise work over the years should be given accolades and recognition for their roles in the significant contribution to medical research and treatment as well as other technological advances enhanced by stable isotope separation.

Other Oak Ridge, Tennessee Links:

American Museum of Science and Energy
Oak Ridge Convention and Visitor's Center
Historical Markers in Oak Ridge
Oak Ridge History
Secret City History
John Hendrix and Y-12
Hymn to Life
Back of Oak Ridge and John Hendrix (Prophet of Oak Ridge) book
Secret City The Movie
A View of the [Bear Creek] Valley

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