A unique way to see Tennessee's Secret City
The history of Oak Ridge is rooted in America’s resolve to bring World War II to an end and the pursuit of scientific advancement. That spirit continues today and there is a special tour that lets you in on some of the “secrets” of the city and takes you to places you likely won’t see any other way. The Department of Energy Bus Tours run for several months of the year, all beginning at the American Museum of Science and Energy. Here is what you’ll see along the way.
Y-12 National Security Complex
Stepping off the tour bus at the New Hope Visitors Center at the Y-12 National Security Complex, you feel like you’re walking into a normal office complex. However, just inside the front doors, heavily armed guards in military fatigues remind you that this is not an ordinary tour. This is the first stop on the Department of Energy Bus Tour, one of the only ways to get up close to some of the Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge.
People on the tour are quickly directed into a room off to the side, one filled with artifacts telling the story of Y-12 and its role in producing enriched uranium for the first nuclear weapons. Before everyone gets a chance to look around, a member of the Y-12 staff fills you in on a little history about Y-12 and shows you a film on how the facility helped lead to the end of World War II. Afterward, our group did get to roam around a bit, getting a chance to see the role Y-12 played in the space program. Special boxes for collecting moon rock samples were developed at Y-12.
Much of what goes on at this National Security Complex is still “top secret.” And while you can see the massive operations in the distance, you can’t get any closer and the tour guides remind you that you also can’t take pictures. What you learn at the New Hope Visitors Center will just have to do until you can get the special clearance you’ll need.
Spallation Neutron Source
After visiting Y-12, the tour heads over to Bethel Valley, an area between Chestnut and Haw Ridges that dozens of farming families once called home. Following 9/11, the road through the valley was closed to the public and now there are guarded security checkpoints at both ends.
Today, some of the world’s top scientific research happens in Bethel Valley at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Part of that research is at the Spallation Neutron Source, the first stop on this part of the tour. The site is impressive and according to the tour guide the work done at Spallation Neutron Source is important, but as a non-scientist I still don’t exactly understand how it all works. It’s a multi-billion dollar facility where scientists produce neutrons in an effort to help improve the safety of products we use everyday. If you’re really into the science be sure and check out more about SNS at https://neutrons.ornl.gov/sns
New Bethel Baptist Church
A small white wooden framed church sits in sharp contrast to the tower at the Ion Beam Facility across the road. This remnant of life before the Manhattan Project is one of the stops on the DOE Bus Tour. While it has little to do with the work going on in the valley now, it does provide a glimpse into the life disrupted when the United States found itself in dire need of bringing World War II to a close.
The New Bethel Baptist Church opened in 1851 and closed in 1942, when the government moved in to build the massive operations for the Manhattan Project. Just inside the back door of the church, you’ll find a map of the area showing all the families that had to move. Some of them, according to the tour guide, were also forced to move when Norris Dam and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were created.
The dark wooden floors, simple pews and an old potbelly stove take you back to a time when worship was simple. No hi-tech sound systems, fancy lighting or big stages. Just a small pulpit, plenty of natural light coming through the large windows and plenty of room for the Holy Spirit. Also, a reminder of what life was like before the Manhattan Project moved in and changed lives here and around the world.
The Graphite Reactor
As long as I’ve lived near Oak Ridge, I have heard about X-10, also known as the Graphite Reactor. On this tour I finally got to see it up close. A small sidewalk leads up the hill where the non-descript building sits. This was the first facility in the world to produce electricity from nuclear energy. It also helped scientists study the effects of radioactivity on health and later produce radioisotopes for a variety of industries including medicine.
The tour guide had a long history working in scientific research, so it was clear he knew exactly what went on here at X-10. However, much of what he had to say was over my head. Still, I just looked around the large room in awe of the role this facility played in world history, and the fact it is basically in my “back yard.”
The last part of the DOE Tour takes you to a place I’ve passed by dozens of times. The old K-25 site was once home to the world’s largest industrial building. Today, the building is gone, and plans are in the works to build a K-25 History Center and Observation Tower at the site, so people can learn more about what happened here and get a better sense of the scope of the gaseous diffusion project.
The drive back into the area that is now transitioning into an industrial park, reveals a lot about the expansive nature of the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge. At one time thousands of plant workers lived near the K-25 plant in a place called Happy Valley. Today, there are very few reminders of the past except a few rapidly deteriorating buildings and lots of empty lots. For people not on a DOE tour, the K-25 Overlook along the main road is a great place to get a quick history of what happened here.
Things to know before you go
Bus Tours originate and are scheduled through the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge.
The Bus Tours are from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm (Check amse.org for schedule).
Half of the seats on the bus are reserved online, the other half are first come first served by signing up at AMSE.
ALL tour guests must be U.S. Citizens (with a valid ID) and at least 10 years old.
Tour guests must sign a legal document claiming that all the information they provided is valid.
There are only a couple of restroom opportunities on the three-hour tour (and no you won’t end up on a deserted island).
Admission to AMSE is included with your bus tour ticket.
The tour is wheelchair accessible, but it is recommended that anyone using a wheelchair give at least 48 hours notice.
For full details and requirements visit https://amse.org/regular-bus-tours/