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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Gordon Fee’s Interview

Gordon Fee is the retired president of Lockheed Martin Energy Systems and the former manager of the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, TN. He began working at Oak Ridge at the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant in 1956. In this interview, he describes his career at Oak Ridge, and shares stories about his work at Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). In particular, he focuses on scientific developments connected with Oak Ridge, including the growth of the Nuclear Navy, the use of radioisotopes in medicine, and more. He also discusses the challenges of trying to explain Oak Ridge’s complex history to the public.

Date of Interview:
April 26, 2018
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. It is Thursday, April 26, 2018, and I have with me Gordon Fee. Gordon, first, why don’t you just tell us a little bit about your background and how you happened to come to Oak Ridge and what you’ve done here.

Gordon Fee: I came to Oak Ridge almost by accident. I was a senior at Penn State University in 1956, and at that particular time, I was going to follow my father’s footsteps and go into the Army as a career officer in the Signal Corps as a physics major out of Penn State. Going in as a fulltime officer meant that I had to take a special physical. One Saturday morning, they loaded about twenty of us on a bus and hauled us off from Penn State down to a military base to take our physical, to allow us to become a career officer.

About 11:30 that particular Saturday morning, the old sergeant that was leading us around to the various stations to get our physical looked at his watch and said, “Hmm, I just forgot the cardiologist has got a tee time at 12:30. We’ve got to double-time over to his office.” He ran us a mile, and in about ten minutes they called my name and I went into the cardiologist. He had his stethoscope. He put it on me and he said, “You’re out. You just failed.” In one brief moment my entire career changed. He said, “Oh, by the way, that’ll make you eligible for the draft. In there, you’ll have to pick up your draft card.” He had heard a heart murmur that nobody after that ever heard. Here I am at 83, and of course, fighting heart problems now. But that changed my career.

This was now April. I had no job, I had not ordered a cap and gown, because I was going to graduate in uniform in there. So suddenly, I had to look for a job. My wife, who at that time was my fiancé, was from Pittsburgh and she had a strong desire to go back to Pittsburgh. We immediately contacted some friends at Westinghouse, and before a couple of weeks were out, I had a job offer from Westinghouse in Pittsburgh.

Senior year was pretty well over and the courses were easier. I see this little plaque on the bulletin board one day that said they wanted to interview people to go to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I’d never been south of the Mason-Dixon Line in my life, and so I said, “That sounds like a good lark. Let’s go find out what they do in Oak Ridge.” I had no intention of really looking for a job, because I was going to Pittsburgh.

I came to Oak Ridge and I fell in love with the people. A mutual friend of yours and mine, Bill Wilcox, interviewed me along with the vice president [of Union Carbide] at that time, Paul Vanstrum. Really rolled out the red carpet for me and offered me the opportunity to take a job in a training program, where I would circulate through each of the departments at the gaseous diffusion plant and decide which one might fit my desires the most.

One question that they asked me there haunted me then for the next fifty years. Paul Vanstrum over lunch asked me what was my career goal. I, being a cocky guy from Penn State, said, “To take your job.” He reminded me of that every year. Finally I took his job some thirty years later. He sent me a note and he said, “You said you were going to do it. I’m just glad I was around to see it happen.”

I go back to Penn State and told my wife that we were going to Tennessee and she said, “You’re going where?” But we did, much to her parents’ consternation that I was taking their daughter to Appalachia and we’d have a washing machine on the front porch. That’s how we ended up coming here, and it was a great career decision.

I immediately went into night school at the University of Tennessee, who offered a degree in nuclear engineering here in Oak Ridge. Had a young family and six years later, in 1962, got my master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee having never stepped on the campus for a class. All done here in Oak Ridge. Like everybody else, you get an advanced degree, you start looking for an opportunity. At that particular time, the gaseous diffusion plant was laying off, so I began looking around and found a job in San Diego with General Atomics and went in and told my boss that I was leaving and was going to go to California.

He said, “Well, before you do that, let’s see what Union Carbide might offer you.” We were all working for Union Carbide in those days. He arranged for an interview with a guy who was a vice president in New York City, a guy by the name of Bob Charpie. Dr. Charpie, who went on to become the president of Bell & Howell and then the president of Cabot [Corporation], was a very charismatic person. He called me up and said, “I got an airline ticket for you. Be in my office at 6:30 tomorrow morning, because I’ve got too many things to do.”

At 6:30 I went into the Union Carbide Building in downtown New York City, came out at 7:30 having accepted a job to go to Cleveland, Ohio, to work on the first fuel-cell car in the United States. In the world, for that matter. We wandered around for Union Carbide there for several years, ten years to be exact. In 1972, after they’d sold the instrument business, called up and said, “Mr. Wilcox, got a job? We’d like to come back to Tennessee.” So we came back to Tennessee and been here ever since.

Kelly: You called Bill or Bill called you?

Fee: I called Bill.

Kelly: You did.

Fee: The story is a little more humorous than that. Union Carbide sold the business we were in. I was the sales manager at that time for Union Carbide Environmental Instruments, and we sold the business to a Boston firm. We were all looking for jobs; they didn’t take any of the people. They had a job that they offered me in Tonawanda, New York, and so we loaded our little kids in the car and we were going off to see Tonawanda, and particularly to look at houses in Tonawanda. We got about ten miles from home and Miriam said, “I forgot the boots for the kids.”

This is the first week in October. I said, “Well, we’re not going to need them. Because, I’ll tell you, if there’s snow in Tonawanda the first week in October, we ain’t going there.” Well, we ended up putting Glad bags around the feet of the kids, because they had three inches of snow. On the way back, on the New York Turnpike [Thruway], we went into a restaurant and got on the payphone on a Sunday night and called Bill. And said, “Hey, what kind of opportunity can you give me? We want to come back and get out of the snow.” As Cindy knows, Bill was my mentor for fifty years, and best friend. Every career decision that I really made was probably made either on the phone with him or in the backyard of his house. That’s how we came back, and came back to a job working on a highly classified project, being the project manager involving technology at K-25.

Well, it wasn’t as thrilling because one thing that my wife never has let me forget is we had to take a serious pay cut, because the taxes in New York were so much higher. The scale of Union Carbide was – Tennessee got paid a lot less. Somehow that was a hard one to sell to a young wife, that we were going to do that. But we did. It was the smartest thing we ever did.

Kelly: That’s great. What did you end up doing at Union Carbide here?

Fee: Well, I started out, as I said, they had a classified project at K-25 doing some work for the defense industry on separation. It’s not classified now. It was separation of plutonium. We never got to that stage. DuPont was deeply involved out of Savannah River. After doing a lot of the preliminary work, including building a building at the K-25 site to do experimental work in, the project was cancelled by mutual – everybody’s agreement that it was not going to work.

When you get my age, it gets a little bit cloudy on the sequence of things, because my career began to move in a variety of directions. I spent several years there, sort of cleaning up that project and helping out in the development of the early stages of the centrifuge program for separating uranium. As frequently happened with me, I got called into the president’s office one Friday, and said, “We have an opening over at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and we think you’re the right person for it. Report over there Monday morning. You don’t have to go back, we’ll pack your desk up.” This was about 4 o’clock on a Friday. I spent the weekend in Wilcox’s backyard saying, “What are they doing to me?” Of course, he knew about it.

I went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory about 1976 to become the head of all the nuclear safety programs, reactor safety that Oak Ridge National Laboratory was working on for nuclear power plants. Worked for Sam Beall, who you’re going to talk to here very shortly. The whole scheme of things, though, was that it was well-known and told to me that when he retired in a year, I would take his place as the director of the Reactor Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

During that period, in addition to serving as the division director for the Reactor Division, which was housed at the Y-12 plant—even though it was Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the facilities were all located at Y-12. Several of us in that era, including a gentleman by the name of Jack Gibbons, who went on to become Bill Clinton’s [0:12:00] scientific advisor in the White House, Dr. Bill Bibb and I were a team of three that spent time all over the Southeast lecturing on the safety of nuclear power. Trying to convince the public that nuclear power was the wave of the future and that it was safe. That was an interesting experience, having to face a lot – there was a great wave of antinuclear people in that era. We ended up at several places having to be escorted out of the auditorium for our own safety by state police, particularly over in North Carolina. So it was an interesting period.

It was a great experience to work at ORNL. A lot of great people. One of my memories is that we got the order one day that we no longer could be called the Reactor Division. In that era, around 1970, late ‘70s, the country was torn apart by the debate on the safety of nuclear power. We actually passed a law in ’77 outlawing reprocessing of fuel. The people, the powers that be – and it gets very foggy whether we were ERDA [Energy Research and Development Administration] in that time or AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] or DOE [Department of Energy]. But we got the order that in 48 hours the Reactor Division would be no more, and that it was to be renamed. We quickly convened a small group of people and I renamed it the Engineering Technology Division. It’s only within the last five or six years that the word “reactor” has snuck back into the vocabulary at ORNL.

We didn’t change our mission in any way, and almost the entire mission at that time was oriented toward producing inventions or engineering advances that would improve the safety of nuclear power plants. Again, I get called in late in about ’79. They said that they were going to build a large multibillion dollar separation plant in Portsmouth, Ohio using a centrifuge technology. And that the Department of Energy had requested that I head up a group of multi-contractor personnel to support the DOE engineering effort to build that plant. So I suddenly became the manager of the Operating Contractors Project Office, fondly known as OCPO.

A group – I had three vice presidents. I was “the president,” although there was no formal company. We moved into the same building with the Department of Energy in downtown Oak Ridge. A guy by the name of Percy Brewington was the head of the Department of Energy. This was a plant to be built using technology that was invented in Oak Ridge, but built at Portsmouth, Ohio. I had a vice president from Goodyear Atomic, who was one of the developers of the centrifuge technology. A Union Carbide vice president and a vice president from Air Research, who was another manufacturer out of Torrance, California, of the centrifuges themselves.

For several years then, we did the design, we moved a ton of dirt up at Portsmouth, and we actually built the building where they were going to assemble the centrifuges themselves. We built about half of one of the first big processing buildings, and Jimmy Carter cancelled the project. Suddenly, the project was dead, and those buildings ended up being used for storage of nuclear waste for years. Today, they have been recycled and for the last five or six years, they’ve been a pilot plant for a centrifuge plant. But it’s in its last, dying days. Since the URENCO folks from Europe have built a big plant out in New Mexico to separate uranium, there’s no market. The government is no longer in that market.

So suddenly, I’m out of a job again. I guess – and my memory may be a little faded, because I think I left a couple of months before the project was cancelled. On one of those Friday nights again, I got called in and said that they were going to move me to Y-12, be head of a process engineering with the idea in a year I would take over as the plant manager at Y-12. In 1982, I became the plant manager at Y-12, replacing a long-time plant manager by the name of Jack Case. For nine years, I spent my life probably in the greatest job I ever had, working with the people who manufacture and engineer the secondaries for nuclear weapons.

It was somewhat of a trying time. At the beginning of my reign, in 1982, we were in full mass production of nuclear weapons. We were building the stockpile, the Russians were trying to outrun us, and we were working three shifts manufacturing nuclear weapons. Right in the middle of the ‘80s, the first cries went up about the environmental impact of the nuclear weapons complex. In Oak Ridge in particular – it almost seems a little bit funny in all the world we live in today – a leak was made of a classified document, a leak by an ORNL person, who thought that we were not giving enough attention to the fact that we had a legacy problem with mercury in the groundwater around the Y-12 plant. Suddenly, we were in the national news as being a terrible environmental threat to the world.

In early days, 1950s, mercury was an element that was used quite frequently to fill your teeth. So nobody thought that mercury had any real toxic problems. Somewhere in the ‘70s, in the Bay [Sea] of Japan, there was a tremendous fish kill, and they were able to track it to the fact that mercury, which is one of the byproducts of coal-fired power plants, had migrated into the Bay. Over the years, elemental mercury turns into a more toxic form and it killed these fish. So suddenly, mercury was in the spotlight as being a toxic commodity.

Oak Ridge today is still fighting that problem. Meaning that what happened is way before my time at Y-12, in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, as the thermonuclear weapons were designed and brought into play, an element of lithium was required to be part of those advanced weapons. The manufacturer of the particular lithium that was needed, they built two large chemical plants at Y-12, whose purpose was to separate the elements of lithium to get the right form for a thermonuclear weapon. The carrier vehicle that was used in these plants was mercury.

In the rush to do thermonuclear manufacturing, bomb manufacturing, the plant commandeered the entire stockpile of mercury in the United States. It came in the form of 76 kilograms. Not kilograms—I’m losing my thought about the size. But they were small bottles that had been used as ballast for sea ships when they would come over from Europe or vice versa and they’d offload their commodity of coal or lumber. Going back, they would use these bottles of mercury as weights in the ship so that they wouldn’t tip over. So they had thousands and thousands and thousands of these small containers, gallon-sized almost, of mercury. In order to fill the plants, they built a pig trough up on top of the hill beside Y-12 and ran a pipeline down into the plant and had people seven days a week, 24 hours a day, up there pouring mercury into these troughs until they saw it come out the spout on the roof of the plant. Thousands and thousands of gallons of mercury were put into the facilities, they ran them.

Many people don’t realize that President [Dwight] Eisenhower during his presidential years issued one of those famous presidential documents that said for nuclear weapons the country will only use blank enriched uranium. There’s always been a moratorium that has never been broken about how much uranium is available for nuclear weapons. Going back even to the 1940s – not [many] people, including a lot of presidential campaign people that I have dealt with – realize that the country passed a law in 1947 that says nuclear weapons can only be manufactured by the civilians, and that the Department of Defense is not to be involved in the manufacturing. We start with two things that have controlled the size of nuclear weapons and the workload at Y-12, you may say. That is, one, that the civilians control it, that there is a moratorium on the amount of uranium the country will put into the stockpile of nuclear weapons.

All that means that one of the big missions at Y-12 is to recycle things. When the military wants a new weapon, they send an old one back to Amarillo, it’s taken apart. Y-12 ends up with their pieces back and they’re recycled. This mercury plant only had to operate for two years, because they knew they would recycle the lithium over and over again in there. So the plant was shut down, but in the ‘80s, suddenly we had to face up to the whole story of how are we going to clean up any mercury spills. All the mercury was now out of the plant, back into these flasks, sitting in a warehouse at Y-12. We had to face up to that.

That brought into the whole table where we had buried uranium waste. A gentleman came into my life by the name of Joe LaGrone, who was the new head of the Oak Ridge Operations Office. And, Joe did a marvelous job, I think, of getting us out front of that environmental wave. Suddenly, though, we’re having to deal with environmental problems and to try to get a handle on how wide they were and what cleanup was going to be required, while we’re still at the peak of manufacturing parts. Then the [Berlin] Wall comes down and things begin to taper off, and treaties are beginning to – and we began suddenly a downturn for the need of manufacturing.

With that began some troubling things across the world in terms of security. A key event to us here in Oak Ridge—had nothing to do with us—but, if you may remember, there was a bombing of the Beirut dormitory where the Marines lived that killed a lot of them. Suddenly, that put a renewed focus on security of the plant. We went into a new wave of not only dealing with the environmental concerns, but concerns about whether or not we had sufficient security around the plant.

We went into a wave of reconfiguring the plant fences, reconfiguring the security. We had no guard towers in those days. Everything became a panic to reconfigure the plant from a security standpoint, closing the road beside the plant. I remember one Thanksgiving Eve, I got a call from Mr. LaGrone. We got the call about four o’clock. He said, “I want the road beside the plant, Bear Creek Road, closed to the public.” Been open now for 25 years or 30 years. “I want it done by 6 o’clock tomorrow morning.” We all got together scratching our heads. This was a major public highway that the fishermen go down to get to the lake, and it’s a quick way to get to Knoxville and everything. How are we going to get gates and guards and all that sort of thing?

We had a super old-time security director that was one of these guys that you told him what to do, he was going to get it done. Just don’t ask him how he did it, or how much money it was going to cost. But boy, he got it done. Well, about midnight that particular Thanksgiving Eve, he said, “I know how we can block the road. We’ll take dumpsters, these big green dumpsters that you have outside buildings, and we’ll fill them with sand and create a labyrinth of barricades on the road.” We got on the phone, called the local quarry guy, who thought we were nuts. We rolled 50 or 60 dump trucks of gravel and filled those things up and built a labyrinth all night long.

We needed signs. I’ll always remember this. We knew early on that evening we needed signs, you know, saying the road was no longer – it was code so-and-so, paragraph so – we were taking domain over the road and you weren’t allowed here and all that stuff. We had one sign painter. He never worked overtime probably in ten years. You know, he painted “this is the lunch line and we got green beans for supper” or something.

We called him in and he said, “I can’t possibly get all those done by morning.”

We said, “You know anybody that can help you?”

“I have a business after hours where my son and I paint signs to make a little extra money.”

I said, “Where’s your son?”

He said, “He’s a senior at Powell High School.” I don’t remember whether it was really Powell, but it was Karns or somewhere. He says, “He’s pitching tonight in a ballgame.”

We said, “Where is he?”

He said, “Well, he’s at this and such a ballfield.” We sent one of the security guys in a car out with Dad and we picked up the kid and they painted signs all night long. The next morning at 6:30, a guy comes up with his fishing boat and can’t get through the thing.

That was our start of really redoing the entire security force. We went from having about 75 security people to some ridiculous number of 300 or something and built new training facilities and everything. It was a complex nine years that I had at Y-12.

At the end of the nine years, I was promoted to Executive Vice President. In that era, the contractor who up until 1984—we all worked for Union Carbide. I forgot in this tale that in 1984 there was a contractor change. The actual change started in 1982, when Union Carbide announced to the government that they no longer were interested in being the contractor in Oak Ridge. In that particular era, Union Carbide was running Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Y-12 plant and the diffusion plant at K-25. It was one consolidated contract.

It was rebid the same way, and after Union Carbide got out, everybody but 27 people were determined to be the bulk of employment. The RFP said that the incoming contractor would have to take the bulk of all employees, but the 27 people could be replaced at the desire of any bidder. Suddenly, we were all being interviewed by the various contractors, and some of us were wooed, some of us weren’t. I was lucky enough to be wooed and ultimately became Vice President for Martin Marietta Corporation, and we all changed badges in 1984. It took two years to go through that process, and we became Martin Marietta, and I was then a vice president in charge of Y-12. I kept my same job there.

Then, oh, the late ‘80s, I became Executive Vice President, replacing Herman Postma when he retired. Then when Clyde Hopkins retired, I became president. Very shortly after I became president, a decision was made by the Department of Energy to split off Oak Ridge National Laboratory into a separate company. It was pulled out from underneath the piece that I had. So I was the last president who had all of the three facilities.

The contract came up for bid in 1998 and I told them I wasn’t interested in going through the bidding process again. So I retired and became a senior consultant to Fee/Hedrick Family Entertainment Group, my son’s business in Pigeon Forge. That’s where we are.

Kelly: Thinking of the span of activities you had with the consolidated Martin Marietta purview over all three units.

Fee: It was. I’ve been able to see all three facilities and, oh, you can argue the story. There’s been a book written by one of the previous. Sam Sapirie wrote a book about his history as being the head of Oak Ridge Operations. He devotes a whole chapter to why you should have only one contract in Oak Ridge. The jury is still out as to whether or not it’s more economic. It never goes back to one contract. There’s so many contractors now, we don’t even know who they are. It’s sort of sad, because in those days, the contractor believed in Oak Ridge and they supported Oak Ridge as a city.

I remember that when Martin Marietta took over, the then-CEO, Norm Augustine, took those of us who had been Union Carbide employees on a retreat. One of the sessions he held with us was that it was Martin Marietta’s position that, yes, you had a job working for Martin Marietta and you had a job to deliver what the government wanted you as a senior leader, but you also had a responsibility and he expected you to be involved in the community. He expected each one of you to have an identified position in the community and a recognized leader of something. He at that time was very much interested in public education. I said, “Well, if the boss is into public education, this sounds like a neat thing to do.”

That started me for eighteen years. Even today, I’m the Emeritus Chairman of the Education Committee for the Tennessee Business Roundtable, an organization of CEOs in Nashville. I became very interested in the entire public education system for Tennessee. The day it was announced publicly that I was going to retire in 1997, I got a call from the-then Commissioner of Education for the State of Tennessee, who I had met as part of my job being the Education Chair for the Roundtable.

She says, “You’re not retiring, you’re coming to work for me in the State Department of Education.” For four years, I commuted from Oak Ridge three times a week to Nashville and headed up the State School to Work program in those days, working in the Department of Education as the first and probably last ever volunteer executive for a dollar a year. I had a really fun time learning the vocabulary and the idiosyncrasies of public educators and commissioners. And ultimately, worked for four different commissioners of education in the state of Tennessee and served on a variety of committees for three different governors. And in 2014, was honored by the State Legislature for my work in public education. That’s another side of that. It all came out because Norm Augustine said to us, “You need to be involved as leaders in the community.”

The sad part today is that’s not the case. Right now, we do not have a single senior manager from the major contractors of the government facilities in Oak Ridge who live in the city. That’s pretty sad.

Kelly: There isn’t any entity, like the Department of Energy, or have they resurrected that office, regional manager–

Fee: No, it’s–

Kelly: Had a span—

Fee: Right.

Kelly: Across all three.

Fee: The head of Oak Ridge Operations was a very recognized person in town, and even in that early era, in the time that I was Y-12 plant manager, it had begun to weaken in that the person here in Oak Ridge had little to say about the Y-12 plant. It was run out of the Albuquerque office. That was the first real breakaway from the old powerful ORO position. In the ‘80s, you could see it slowly deteriorating as Washington would pull pieces away from the Oak Ridge operation until in about the year 2000, the stovepipes. ORNL going straight to Washington, Y-12 going straight to Washington, and the diffusion operation going straight to Washington. Today, it’s an extremely weak position and nobody even – the town, you don’t even know who they are, you don’t know who the head is of ORO right now. I can’t even name him. That’s pretty sad even for me, let alone the general public. It’s an entirely different atmosphere.

Kelly: Well, it’s a big loss for the city.

Fee: Yeah. I’m well-known in the city, sort of, for my thoughts on trying to sell the story of Oak Ridge and also from the fact that I’m well-quoted as the fact that I think the major contractors have abandoned this city. They all balk at that idea, but I think it’s just true. They have abandoned the city. Our major scientists don’t live here anymore. They live in Knox County or they live down on the lake. The whole dynamic of Oak Ridge as being a thriving center of scientific knowledge – the scientific knowledge that’s left here now is the old folks. What we’re getting now are the construction workers. So it’s a different era.

But Oak Ridge has got a great story to tell. It’s sort of the secret – you know, we’re known as the “Secret City.” In fact, we are secret today in terms of what has really happened here since 1945. I fought this battle for twenty years from a different perspective. Having a son now who’s been very successful, it kind of hurts when you go around and you go to some function and you’re introduced as David’s father. Because, my son now has got five theaters and two restaurants in the tourist center of the Smoky Mountains. He certainly has colored my thoughts as to what it takes to sell a story to the general public. I think we have just done such a terrible, lousy job of telling the Oak Ridge story.

People know us for the bomb. People know us for the environmental problems we’ve had. When you move outside of the small, East Tennessee area and you go to the legislature in Nashville today, I’ll take a bet with anybody that I can’t find more than four legislators will have the foggiest notion what Oak Ridge National Laboratory does. Here’s a national laboratory, the premier laboratory in the United States, located in our state. Spending $2 billion of the taxpayers’ money every year, and the legislators haven’t the foggiest notion what they do.

When you then get out into the general public in Nashville, I’ll never – three years ago, I was out to dinner with two bankers and their wives in Nashville, and the wives wanted to know why I would ever live in Oak Ridge. Shouldn’t it be like Chernobyl and we put up the concrete barricades? It’s dirty out there, why would we come there? That’s why I feel so passionate about trying to tell the story of what are the innovations that have come out of this. I mean, we all know, the genie’s out of the bottle, but so much good has come out of the nuclear era that was born here. The nuclear era was born here. How has it advanced our lives, how has it made them better?

Some of the public relations people at the laboratory know that I’ve beat on them for 20 years. Even when I had the laboratory, I beat on them and got zero cooperation from the lab directors, who want to talk about science. We’re known for neutron scattering. You can say that word, and that we are known here in Oak Ridge as the world-premier site for neutron scattering. But there isn’t a general person in the public that has the foggiest notion what neutron scattering even means. I’ve had a different bent trying to tell this story. It’s a hard story to tell when you try to get it to the general public level.

My mentor, Bill Wilcox, used to always talk about the fact we need to tell the story for Joe and Sally from Peoria, Illinois. If we can tell it for Joe and Sally – and I recently wrote a letter to Bill’s daughter, to Martha. I said something to the line of the fact that Sally would not be happy with this particular exhibit that we’re building here. She said, “What happened? Did Joe die?” [Laughter] But it was his way of saying the story has got to be told.

Most recently, we’ve tried to continue – the historian here in town was Bill Wilcox. His was an honorary job as the historian of Oak Ridge, and he’s been replaced by D. Ray Smith. We do have a historian all the time who tries to compile the story, and what are the innovations. You can’t find a single person in this town that can name five of what are the things that have come out of this place now that we have the nuclear era here.

It starts off with – we would argue pretty substantially that this is the birthplace of the Nuclear Navy. The Nuclear Navy was created through the discussions of two scientists, you might call, Admiral Rickover and Alvin Weinberg. Alvin Weinberg had been the scientist here in charge of reactor technology for a number of years in the late ’40s and early ‘50s. They began envisioning how nuclear power could be used to generate electricity and how it might drive ships in order that they could stay at sea a lot longer. It was through the discourse of those individuals that the actual power plant design used in submarines was developed and created. The admiral being a very strong individual and Alvin being very strong, [they] became good friends. And some of their personal letters are on file here at the Children’s Museum, handwritten by the two of them back and forth, arguing about the merits of this or that. Or sometimes talking about their tennis game.

When the admiral decided that he enough had information, he did not want to be intertwined with the efforts going on to develop nuclear power for electric generation here. He convinced the Atomic Energy Commission, the controlling entity of that era, to have his own laboratory off in, I guess, a piece in Pennsylvania and a piece in Idaho to drive toward the Nuclear Navy. But all the first officers for nuclear technology for the Navy were trained here in a training school.

You could not have a nuclear power plant without the fuel, and the fuel was produced here at the Oak Ridge gaseous diffusion plant. All the early fuel for nuclear power, whether it be for the Navy or electrical power, was produced. You have to have the right fuel to put into the power plant. When you think about Oak Ridge, the first thing that comes to mind for me is that we created the fuel and we created the idea and we started the nuclear Navy. Today, with the latest carrier, I guess, on the way or already over in the Middle East – the [USS George H.W.] Bush, I guess it is – those power plants today are still driven by material that was created out of the diffusion plant.

We often get diverted at all the science that went on at the laboratory and the things that come here. But sometimes we forget that without the fuel produced at the gaseous diffusion plant, we wouldn’t have any nuclear power plants. What’s interesting about the diffusion plant, when you think about the advances that they have made, is that in the – and again, my timeframe gets confused here and I believe it was in the ‘70s – a lot of places in the world did not have separation capability. Someone in the chain of the management of the diffusion business decided that, gee, we ought to go into the business of toll enrichment. Like the old farmers used to bring their corn into the mill on their wagons and have them grind it into flour, why don’t we do the same thing?

A program was designed to take raw material, the ore, out of the ground that had been purchased by the Japanese or by some of the European countries or by India. Ultimately, some several dozen countries brought their depleted – not their depleted, but their natural – uranium to the gaseous diffusion plant at K-25 and Paducah. And it was toll-enriched.

One of the interesting stories is an old governor by the name of Ned McWherter of the state of Tennessee called his finance commissioner in one day and says, “I understand they’re doing some of this toll enrichment stuff out there in Oak Ridge. Have we thought about taxing that from a sales tax standpoint?”

“No, we haven’t.” And ultimately, it went all the way to the Supreme Court, but the state of Tennessee won, and several billions of dollars of sales tax was generated on the enriched uranium that was toll-enriched at K-25. Ultimately, the countries either got enough material for a long time, or went to other countries, and we began losing that market share until, ultimately, in 1985, the diffusion plant at K-25 was shut down.

In terms of innovation and contribution to the world, the diffusion plant needs to be recognized for the fact that it did produce fuel that has made the lives of people all over the world better through the generation of electric power. We also forget that the K-25 plant here in Oak Ridge was the flagstone of the diffusion plants. Ultimately, there was a diffusion plant built at Paducah, Kentucky, and one in Portsmouth, Ohio. Now all three of them are shut down, all are being torn down as there appears to be enough uranium for us. Or we’ve lost our share to the French and the Russians and the Germans. Other people have diffusion or other enrichment capability.

Being the flagstone, one of the advances made in the diffusion world has been the fact that it consumed on its own a lot of electrical power. In order to save that power, a lot of work was done in the diffusion world on trying to make the hydraulic flow of fluids through pipes. Gases through pipes have less friction. So there was a lot of technology that’s been developed over the years to make fluids flow with less friction, consume less electricity. That gets lost in the fodder of what’s come out of the advances. That’s pretty well why K-25 is recognized in the diffusion world.

There have been several spinoff attempts to take the separation material, called “barrier,” and to use it for other kinds of separation capabilities. There have been a number of companies that have tried to adapt that technology to water purification. But because there is so much security sensitivity to how to make the real barrier, and it’s never been declassified, rightly so in my opinion, those companies have pretty well failed at being able to use the gaseous diffusion secret technology for water purification. Ultimately, they have sort of all gone off into the West and have not been very successful at transferring that technology.

But being the flagship for enrichment technology, in the late ‘70s the plant began working on centrifuge technology and that work is carried on even today at a very low level. Hasn’t been very successful at all. I would think some people would say we picked the wrong size machine. Our machines are big and tall, and the Europeans are short. The Europeans in my opinion have been much more successful.

That technology has led to two of the premier advances that have come out of Oak Ridge. People from Oak Ridge National Laboratory working with the centrifuge experts from the gaseous diffusion plant latched onto the idea of using that centrifuge technology to purify vaccines, specifically polio and flu vaccines. In the discovery of vaccines that are used for our bodies, they have multiple components in them, one being the live virus that can create polio on its own. Using that as an example. And the dormant cells, which allow your immune system to build up the resistance to the disease. By using the centrifuge technology, they can get rid of the live material.

There’s a myth – I think it’s a myth – around that we have been chasing for the last couple of years, that [Jonas] Salk – we know Salk came to ORNL to help develop the technology for polio purification. The rumor and the myth is that he took the first shot in the ORNL medical facility. We’ve never been able to verify that. But the story about using centrifuge technology that comes out of the enrichment business as a means to clean up flu vaccine and polio vaccine is one of the greatest inventions that have come out, and one that obviously has impacted millions of people.

The polio story is even more interesting in that for a number of years, the head of security for the Department of Energy was a gentleman by the name of Bill Sergeant. Bill ran the security operations from early ‘50s until somewhere in late ‘70s, ‘80s, long string as a security expert. Started out even back when they had horses, riding the fences around here. He was a Rotarian and the Rotary Clubs of the world decided that they were going to take on the initiative to eliminate polio from the world, the disease polio from the world. Bill Sergeant took that on as his personal leadership. He traveled the world, ultimately became a vice president of Rotary International and traveled the world giving shots himself to children in India. But teaching Rotary Clubs how to give the shots, until today, polio is almost eliminated. 

Bill was a long-time Oak Ridger and ultimately was awarded with a statue, a bronze statue of Bill Sergeant. But instead of Oak Ridge, where is it? It’s in downtown Knoxville, when you walk the Market Square in downtown Knoxville. Here we go from cleanup, a polio vaccine to a fellow from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, led the fight in the world to get rid of polio. I think that’s a very intriguing story that comes out of Oak Ridge.

When you look at the innovations that have come out, the medical advances are not only in purification technique, but probably the number one innovation that has ever come out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is medical isotopes. In 1946, out of the Graphite Reactor at ORNL, the first isotope was shipped to a hospital in St. Louis, with the idea of using it as a possible treatment mechanism for disease. Recently, several folks led by Steve Stow, who used to be the director here at the [American] Museum [of Science and Energy], tried to trace down at St. Louis what actually happened once that isotope reached the St. Louis hospital, with little success. We don’t know where it really went. But that first initial shipment blossomed into a multibillion-dollar business today. Today, one out of three of us in our lifetime will be subjected to some use of medical isotope, either for the treatment of cancer or the diagnosis of heart disease or cancer, or thyroid disease.

Many, many of the isotopes used throughout the years for that were produced on the same machine as the material for the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Here you’ve got the terrible weapons use and here’s the good for mankind, where these isotopes eventually become something that save lives and diagnose terrible diseases.

As that infant industry grew from 1946 onward, a number of players in Oak Ridge came into the forefront. Oak Ridge Associated Universities [ORAU], which is this consortium of over 100 different colleges today, was started in that era with a group of southern universities. With the idea of learning from an academic standpoint how this whole nuclear era could benefit mankind and what should they be doing in the universities to teach people about radiation and nuclear-related things. Played a key role in developing the medical isotope business.

Ultimately, Oak Ridge Associated Universities built the first Atomic Energy Commission – DOE now – hospital for the treatment of cancer using radioisotopes and recruited a private company, Abbott Laboratories, to build a processing facility to get the isotopes in the right form to put into a human body. We had the first hospitals for the sole purpose of using isotopes to treat cancer patients. It operated for about 20 years, I guess, and had patients – I think they had about 170, something like that, beds, and were located next to our own major hospital here in Oak Ridge. And did a lot of the early diagnosis work, particularly in developing the instrumentation that would have to go around a human body in order to target disease or tumors or what-have-you.

They also built an entire room about the size of this room, as I understand it, which was outfitted as a motel room, and patients would live there for a week at a time and undergo full-body radiation. Originally, they built it with the idea of being a treatment for some diseases like arthritis. Never very successful, but during the course of building it, another party came into play and that was – today it’s called NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration]. I think it was NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics] in those days, but NASA was interested in what would happen to astronauts when they were exposed to the radiation of space. That room was used to get some of the first data on irradiation of whole bodies for an extended period of time.

There’s a whole growth industry developed around the medical isotope business that goes on today. Medical isotopes are still being produced in the last operating reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They are being shipped all over the world. But a lot of the other isotopes, some of which we don’t even produce anymore, we have to get from Russia, which is an interesting trade that has to take place, or from Canada.

But there is no question that if you ask people what is the number one innovation that has come out beyond the defense business, it’s medical isotopes. The production of them either in the reactors at Oak Ridge National Laboratory or the calutrons that produced the material for the first bomb. How to tell that story has never really been written yet. And we keep pushing. The hospital has long been torn down, does not exist anymore. The Abbott Laboratory has moved away. So today, it’s a minor industry at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but in the world, it’s a billion-dollar industry with millions of doses of radioisotopes.

A spinoff out of that business and one that we love to claim as an Oak Ridge innovation is on the margins of being really associated with us. That’s a thing called PET scanner. A scientist by the name of Terry Douglass was an Oak Ridge National Laboratory employee. But early on, spun off from the laboratory, and he was very interested in using a nuclear-related technology to do imaging of the human body, to go beyond the capability of X-rays. He teamed up with a group from a university—I’ve forgotten which one this morning. Up until about two months ago, I didn’t know this university and I made the mistake of saying that Terry Douglass invented the PET scanner, which is now deployed in thousands of hospitals across the world. The head of nuclear medicine at St. Jude’s corrected me and said he had nothing to do with the invention of the PET scanner. He commercialized it. It was invented at a university – and it turned out he’s right.

But he certainly commercialized it over a ten-year period and built it into a business that was ultimately bought by Siemens for $1 billion. Two gentlemen, Terry Douglass and a professor at the University of Tennessee, split a billion dollars. Terry went on and went from the imaging technology, that’s what PET is—I like to tell my wife it’s an advanced X-ray. You know what X-rays will do. Well, the PET scanner can see through bones and can see deep[er] into your body that an X-ray can’t. So that’s why it’s used in hospitals. Most people know some of the other scanning technologies, but PET is the advanced today.

He took the money and he invented a thing called proton therapy, using another nuclear element, a proton, to treat cancer, and he built a $200 million facility in Knoxville. Another one is going up in Nashville right now, and they’re treating thousands of patients every year for prostate cancer, breast cancer and brain cancer. We’ll claim proton therapy, too, but in reality, it was Terry and his buddy. Again, he commercialized it.

Certainly that whole train of medical advances that have come out of the birthplace at ORNL. And that doesn’t even touch upon the fact that in the early years, beginning in the ‘50s and up until the ‘80s, there was a Biology Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. At one time had the largest pure stream of mice for experiments in the world. 250,000 mice was the peak. Started out very small, in the hundreds and then the thousands, and two very talented biology doctorates, a husband and wife team, Bill and Liane Russell, used those mice for years to study the intricacies of the human body.

These things that we now throw around as if we understood them, DNA and RNA and genetics. They studied all of those components that make up the human body using mice as their vehicle, and made a lot of the early advances at understanding the human body. There seems like today that other than forensics, where we now catch criminals using DNA all the time, there are more advances being made on disease and other things that really have their history going back to some of the things at the Biology Division.

Using those same mice, the first definite study that ever showed that cigarette smoking caused cancer were done at the ORNL Biology Division with a visiting scientist from Germany. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen eight or ten mice at the same time smoking cigarettes in order to get their supper, which I have. Then examining how bad their lungs look after that kind of exposure.

The Biology Division is known for its advances in trying to understand the thing, but Mrs. Russell—I’ve never heard her called Mrs. Russell—Dr. Liane Russell’s best legacy, and she’s still alive today, as you well know, is the fact that she set the standards for pregnant women being exposed to X-rays that are still used today.

In the early advances of understanding radiation – and they were put together for the whole purpose of trying to understand whether this radiation that was created by working around nuclear fuels was going to harm the human body. They began looking at medical X-rays, and she became very concerned that X-rays were being misused on pregnant women, and that they were damaging the unborn child. Through her work and the advances made in that laboratory, she set the standards of when you should stop X-raying and use sonograms or some other thing for whatever reason and what was the maximum exposure you should give a pregnant woman. Sometimes we forget that that all comes back to one person. She championed it and yelled loud enough in the regulation bodies to make sure that they were held.

Lots of great things came out of the Biology Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That’s sort of the end of the medical story, but it certainly has a sound basis.

As the nuclear industry grew, Oak Ridge National Laboratory basically became the center of making sure that the power plants we build in this country are safer than those anywhere else in the world. Oak Ridge National Laboratory has studied for years the dome that goes over the top of our nuclear plants, such that if there is an accident like Chernobyl, it’s well-contained. They’ve done a lot of work on the safety of the controls and the instrumentation. Hard to describe in any way that means anything to the general public. It certainly has been a technology birthplace that has made sure that we have the safest power plants in the world. One demonstration of safety is the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. The only person harmed there was one of the scientists had a heart attack because he was so upset at the way the press was treating it as being a disaster when there was no one hurt. A lot of the work that they have done over the years has been associated with the safety of nuclear power.

Some of the early work, the first real generation of electric power using a nuclear source, was done at ORNL, using a hobby steam generator and a light bulb coming out of the side of the Graphite Reactor. We could really claim that we produced the first power, but we didn’t put it back on the net so it could be fed to a house. But it was produced here and there are documented pictures of it. I think the mockup is still at the Graphite Reactor out here.

When you go beyond those things, one of the most interesting innovations out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee has nothing to do with the laboratory. In fact, it is a technology that the laboratory said they wanted no part of helping develop. It’s still being used today and probably one of you sitting in this room has got a cellphone. The touchscreen for the cellphone was invented at Oak Ridge, Tennessee by Dr. Samuel Hurst and five of his buddies. They were ORNL employees, but they took this technology that they had discovered while working on some other things to the laboratory management. They said, “Quit fooling around with that. We don’t want any part of it. It’s no applicability to us.”

They went – it took three of their basements and one guy started working on the detector and one guy started working the screen, and one guy started working on a case for them in their basements. They ultimately formed their own company and commercialized the first touchscreen, and built a building in Grove Center, marketed the first touchscreens and ultimately sold the company. Still exists today in Silicon Valley, they moved away from Oak Ridge. But the touchscreen was invented, and you can read the history from the IEEE, the Society of Electrical Engineers [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers]. We do get credit for inventing in 1971 the touchscreen.

ORNL has had a very diverse history of the technologies that they have worked on. The old joke used to be, “You name the technology, yeah, we’re working on it, but can we find the person that’s doing it? Probably not.” If you look at the span of things, anything related to energy, there has been some work done in Oak Ridge. Over the years, a variety of different complexes have been built. Example being the National Transportation Laboratory [National Transportation Research Center], which is located halfway between the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory complex. Was a compromise to locate it on the parkway that you’re going to pass going to the airport. And was started in the late ‘80s.

Even technologies that you see everyday going down the road were invented at the National Transport—what I mean there is as you go down the road now, watch when you see an 18-wheeler go by you, one of these big trucks. We have thousands of them moving through the city every day. Look under the trailer and you’ll see on each side a cardboard skirt that hangs between the wheels. To develop that skirt – and you’ll see today about 40% of the trucks have these skirts underneath them and the others don’t yet. It’s interesting to note that those things only cost about $3,000 a set, one on each side of a trailer, to put on.

They were helped invented at ORNL using the supercomputers. It’s one of the things that have come out of the large computer capability, because using the supercomputers, they were able to model the hydraulics of the wind coming around the cab of a truck and going down the sides or up over the top. By cutting down the wind patterns under there they decreased the friction and therefore improved the gas mileage.

By investing those $3,000 of putting what I call pieces of cardboard—the scientists get very upset at that, because I guess they’re plastic—under there, the fuel efficiency is raised somewhere between two and three percent. When you multiply that by the number of trucks on the road, you’re talking about a billion dollars’ worth of savings in fuel. But, it’s interesting to note, to me, that that had to start with supercomputer to end up with something rather simple that came out of that.

Those are the kinds of things that have spun off in the energy field. There’s a whole collection of technologies that ORNL has worked on; new clothes dryers using a different kind of technology to get your clothes dry. Some of which are on the verge of being commercialized, because sometimes it’s a long time from when you start here in the laboratory to when you get it commercialized and can actually put – particularly in today’s world of regulations and things have to be approved by a million people.

ORNL has done a lot of work on housing. Again, a hard story to tell. But the roofs that we put on buildings now are better today because of some of the things done to improve the effectiveness of roofing materials. Insulation in your houses is different. So it’s another area.

If you looked at what ORNL is really known for outside of the nuclear world, you’d get to materials. Their materials folks have invented a number of new materials. One of the examples we like to use for the University of Tennessee–if you go into their basketball arena and you look up at the ceiling at their brand new LED lights, the mountings are all foam materials developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to keep the heat away from the building and the surroundings around the lights.

So ORNL started worrying about materials that could be exposed to the nuclear environment and used in the fuel rods that might go into a nuclear power plant. Today, we’re now working on carbon materials that make airplanes lighter and your automobile lighter using carbon technology, and I guess even recently signing an agreement to work on bicycles all made out of carbon fiber. There’s been a whole span of materials developed starting at the nuclear arena, but expanding through new materials for truck engines, new materials for insulations, new materials for lightweight fabrication.

Y-12 doesn’t get very much credit, because of the fact that everything they do at Y-12 is highly secret, being in the nuclear weapons manufacturing business. But in reality, airplanes today are manufactured more efficiently. A lot of the work that has been done on cutting metal used in automobiles has its genesis at Y-12 – not being invented there, but as we got into the nuclear weapons manufacturing business, particularly in creating a number of weapons, there’s an awful lot of metal cutting. In Y-12’s case, it’s uranium and they do a lot of machining. In doing that work, they had to develop technology that was very precise. A nuclear weapon requires very precise machining. As that technology was developed, they both had to manufacture, cut metal, but then you had to measure whether or not it was right. Over the years, they have become the center of learning how to cut metal with great precision and how to measure whether or not it has the precision. So Y-12 will periodically be called in to tackle jobs which nobody else can do.

In addition to doing metalworking for the nuclear weapons business, they’ve become a center of expertise to be able to teach the commercial world how to machine things with great precision that might be used in airplanes, airplane engines. By working with the companies that manufacture the tools that are used, particularly companies like Cincinnati Milacron, who would come to Y-12 and work with them to develop the next generation of metal-cutting machines. As a result of having that technology, as I indicated, people particularly would come and say, “Well, we’ve tried to do this, but it can’t be done.” Over the years, Y-12 got a motto that said basically they could do anything you could dream, that we’ll make it.

One of those examples where that was really put into play is when the Navy, as they began to look at the next generation of submarines after the Nautilus-class submarines were built, wanted to make them a lot quieter, so that the adversaries couldn’t hear the subs as they went through the sea. To do that, they worked to develop a new propeller that would drive the submarine through the water. And to do that, they needed very, very tight metal blades in this big propeller and they couldn’t find anybody to make it. They came to Y-12. So the first Seawolf-class propulsor was made at Y-12 using the technology that had been developed to cut metal for nuclear weapons. That was a very successful venture for Y-12 and for the country to be able to do something so precise that makes those submarines so quiet.

But Y-12 rarely gets any credit for the fact that they have helped advance Boeing’s capabilities, because it’s one or two places behind. It’s Cincinnati Milacron who gets the credit, if you look at the patent structure–a lot of the early work on precision manufacturing. I’m very proud of the fact that the team was able in the mid-to-late 1980s – we won the prestigious Society of Manufacturing and Engineering award for being the most computer-advanced manufacturing facility in the world. Thanks to a team of engineers and more importantly, the machinists at Y-12, who really are the people that really learned how to do precision manufacturing. Those are some of the advances that I think about when I think of Y-12 and what capability they have brought to the table over and above that.

They get a lot of credit for two things that are in the space industry, because they can be unclassified. NASA came to Y-12, of all things, looking for a very quick turnaround on producing the boxes that would be taken to the moon to seal the moon rocks back in to make sure that they would not have any diseases or strange bacteria or little aliens that would come up. So Y-12 was given the job to manufacture these aluminum boxes about that long and about that high that would be put in the space program to go to the moon. They had precision seals so that they could put the moon dust in. All the rocks and dust were placed inside some carbon bags made out of carbon fiber. I don’t remember why they had to have the bags on the inside, but the bags were made in a local hobby shop in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, by ladies who knit them in there.

And off these aluminum boxes went—there’s one on display out at Y-12 right now, there’s several in the Smithsonian—the untold story is that they got to the moon and when the moon dust started stirring around as a result of their boots walking around on the moon, the dust got on the seals. The truth be known, the boxes were not sealed on the way back to the earth, but they went into a sealed laboratory in Houston.

The other part of the space story is one that D. Ray Smith, our historian, and I have been chasing for the last year. A fellow that is now dead told me the story that – if you remember, there was a golf ball hit on the moon. The fact is there were, I guess, three hit on the moon, and the story is that the golf club was manufactured at Y-12 as a universal tool. There’s no question we made a tool, but if you read the history of it, that particular golf club now rests in a museum in New Jersey. It’s at the USGA’s, Golf Association’s, headquarters in New Jersey. I’d love to go see it, because I want to see the markings on the handle.

We do believe it was our handle. We know that the golf club head was not. A golf pro manufactured the head, but we made a thing called the universal rock sampler. The story goes that NASA was concerned that there were several possibilities that they had studied where they would not be able to have the astronaut on the moon for longer than about two and a half minutes. I don’t remember what the scenario is, but it was in case of this kind of emergency, and they wanted to have something in the astronaut’s space pocket that he could whip out, jam it into the earth and get a sample and put it back in his pocket. So we invented at Y-12 a collapsible handle that would go into his pocket, and we believe that’s the handle that was used on the tool. But we haven’t been able to verify that. You got to go look at it.

Several of us keep looking for these stories, the human interest stories that go with the innovations that have taken place here. Then there’s the greatest secret of all, the most-asked question about things about Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at our tourism bureau: did the Oak Ridge Boys live here? The answer is no. But the Oak Ridge Boys are named for Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It’s a story that D. Ray Smith and I have been chasing for the last year, because the current version of the Oak Ridge Boys, if you hear them in concert anywhere in the South, they tell the story of how they are named for Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

That story is that during the war years, this was obviously a closed community, and we had a fence around the place and you just didn’t walk in here. But they wanted to make sure that the people living here had entertainment. So they cleared a few number of bands and groups of entertainers from the local areas that were given permission to come through the gates and to entertain the people in the town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. One of those was a group called Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers, and they were hired to come into Oak Ridge, given badges to entertain children on Saturday afternoon. We found an actual advertisement for Wally and his band of people. Some days, he came in as the Harmony Quartet if he was going to entertain adults.

The bomb and of course the publicity is everywhere of what’s been going on in Oak Ridge. About a month later, in September of 1945, Wally and his group are hired for the first time to go to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, to sing. They became a group that was called back over and over again. Well, on the first time, they’re driving to Nashville in their rickety old bus and they’re saying, “You know, it’s pretty hard to get gigs in Tennessee when you’re called Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers. Let’s change our name.” Well, Oak Ridge was big in the news. Said, “Let’s call ourselves the Oak Ridge Quartet.” So on the way they were called the Oak Ridge Quartet.

Well, it turned out that old Wally was the best friend of the announcer who was at the Grand Ole Opry then, and he wanted to give Wally some credit. He began calling them Wally Fowler and his Oak Ridge Boys, and the name was born. Wally then eventually sold the name in 1958 to the current group that owns it, and as they say, that’s the rest of the story and it’s now history. But the Oak Ridge Boys themselves tell that story, and we now have a street here in town. It’s about as long as this room, but it’s called the Oak Ridge Boys Street. But we can’t claim they ever lived here.

Kelly: But they performed here.

Fee: They have. There’s so many stories to tell, but the scientific story would be entirely different. The scientific story, if you ask them, as we have many times, to list the ten things, the things that come up are all these neutron scattering, things that have come out of Spallation Neutron Source, the $2 billion facility. But there are so many tangents here. To try to isolate down into what are the four or five big things, you come back to the medical advances, by far are the most significant to the general public.

But you can’t downplay the basic work that’s been done in imagery, being able to study the human body. I mean, they’re got technology at the Spallation Neutron Source today, where they can actually examine a running diesel engine while it’s up and running. They can look into the guts of the engine and see what’s going on. That’s going to advance lots of things. But tying that to what the top ten are is very tough, very tough, in language that a tourist can understand. We keep struggling with it and every day we find something a little bit different, a different way to tell the story. I think we’ll make a little bit of impact in new AMSE [American Museum of Science and Energy], not much, but a little.

We’ve got a great story to tell for the [Manhattan Project] National [Historical] Park here, but getting that story in a form – we’re close to the Smoky Mountains, where we’ve got 10.5 million tourists come. They’re interested in this city. They like the human interest, they like the secrets, to hear about the spies. Unfortunately or fortunately, as you may believe, Oak Ridge has very few spy stories, because we only have one. It’s under great debate whether it’s even real.

But telling the story of the scientific advances, I think, is extremely important. Getting it into a flavor that people can – those tourists that we can spin off from the Smoky Mountains. Now that thanks to you, lady, we’ve got a national park and I really believe that and we thank you for that. I don’t think it would have happened without you. How we capitalize on that and tell the story, and not lose the fact that the Manhattan Project was such a crucial turning point in the world for both the defense of the world and the fact that we’ve been able to take that technology and turn it into very useful forms of things that have advanced us and made our lives easier. We just got to keep trying to tell that story.

Sometime when you’re in Oak Ridge, one of the things that you ought to go look at and get the story of is there’s the world’s largest collection of radiation-related stuff at ORAU [Oak Ridge Associated Universities]. A gentleman there who teaches their health physics courses to people from all over the world has collected not only all the early detection devices used for health physics, but he’s collected all the radiation scams, and some that were used for years.

If you’re as old as me, you’d remember that going to the shoe store, you used to love to run away from your parents and stick your feet in the machine where you could see your bones around your shoe, an X-ray machine. He’s got those kind of machines in his little museum over in the original buildings that were built during the war, where some of the original work on health physics was done. It’s a great collection to see, because you see some of the scams and things that were — radiation was looked upon it was going to cure everything from brain diseases to arthritis or to whatever you name. Of course, it didn’t, but it’s a great story to tell in its own, too.

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