Friday, July 19, 2013

PBS series from Y12 and Oak Ridge: "A Nuclear Family"

Tennessee PBS and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Y12 National Security Complex and Y12 Video Services, offer a four-part television series called “A Nuclear Family”, most of it filmed apparently in 011.  Each part runs about 25 minutes.  Dr. Ray Smith is the lead historian. Some of the footage comes from one of the first employees who owned a camera, Ed Wescott.

The DVD's are offered free to visitors of the Y12 Center on the tour operated in the summer weekdays from the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge (see Issues blog, July 16, 2013). 
The four parts of the series are called “I’ve Seen It”, “The Manhattan District”, “A Race for Peace”, and “Lifting the Veil

Part I describes family life and community life in East Tennessee in the early 1940’s.  It describes life as communal, with people and families helping one another, although there was less that could be done for the needy in many ways in those days than today.

One man had a dream that his land would be used to win a war.  Soon, news of the beginnings of World War II began to drift into the community. 

In late 1942, people were told they would be evicted from their farmland and would have to live by the end of the year.  A typical payment from eminent domain was $900 for 40 acres.  People were not paid for months, and had to ask for the generosity of friends and relatives, or “radical hospitality”.
People were willing to sacrifice property to win the war, because their sons were already dying on the battlefield after being drafted, or volunteerings.

Part 2 describes the Manhattan Project, and the work at ORNL for it.  The enormous facility employed many women and many African-Americans. 

Single people lived in dormitories.  There were more dorms for women than men.  Only married couples (with or without children) could live in the prefabricated homes.  Black workers were “separate and unequal” and lived in huts.

The secrecy and the “need to know” rule kept workers from understanding the implications of their work.  Military officers, dressed in plain clothes, would take uranium samples in briefcases in subcritical masses on passenger trains all the way to Los Alamos, NM.

The workers, some of whom are elderly women who speak in the film, didn’t find out what they were doing until they heard the news about Hiroshima.
A typical link describing the series is here. Another link is at DOE,

After WWII, Y12 continued work on the critical components of larger nuclear weapons as part of the Cold War, as shown in Part III.

Some returning veterans went to work there, and men with large shrapnel pieces in their bodies ould not work near the huge electromagnets without being stabbed from the inside

Part IV shows how Y12 was so instrumental to triggering the collapse of the Soviet Union, ending the Cold War without ever using the weapons components its plant had produced for decades.  Literally, we might have wound up living under fascism or communism without it, the film says.

Y12 workers and "volunteers" participated in removing nuclear materials from many part of the world, including parts of the former Soviet Union, a goal of Sam Nunn's "Nuclear Threat Initiative". 

Y12 workers needed knew jobs, and some were applied to civilian use, such as using metallurgy to reproduce the sounds of pre WWII banjos. 

The films imply that Y12 (facility for creating and handling enriched uranium)  is organizationally separate from ORNL; I’m not sure what that means. 

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