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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Theodore Rockwell’s Interview (2002)

Manhattan Project Locations:

Ted Rockwell arrived in Oak Ridge in 1943 after graduating from Princeton with a degree in engineering. Once settled, he joined the “Process Improvement Team”, a group of engineers tasked with monitoring and fixing problems at various plants across the site. Rockwell recalls life at Oak Ridge, describing the secret city as “a tremendous sociological experiment” where “kids who had never used any indoor plumbing and sons of Nobel laureates all went to school together.” After the war, Rockwell worked with Captain Hyman Rickover to help develop the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine.

Date of Interview:
April 27, 2002
Location of the Interview:



Well I was very young at the time. I went down there in 1943, down to Oak Ridge, TN.   They were interviewing at Princeton where I was going to school. They guys said that they had a very important war project going on down there. And I said, “Oh what’s it all about?” 

And they said, “Oh, we can’t tell you what it’s all about.”

So I said, “Gee, why should I go at a place if you can’t tell me what it’s all about.”  

I didn’t want anything to do with that, so I talk to some friends who were doing some classified work and said, “What’s this stuff all about?” 

And they said, “We can’t tell you but you should look through at some chemistry journals recently.” 

So I started pawing through chemistry journals that night and I came across the story of the discovery of atomic fission and I thought, well maybe this is it. Then I looked at some other stuff and the almanac said that uranium had recently been discovered in East Tennessee which turned out to be completely untrue, so I said, “Gee this must be it.”  

So came tearing back to this guy and said, “Hey I know what you’re doing. It’s atomic energy.  Isn’t that right?”  

And he said, “It is the policy of the US Government neither to confirm or deny—”

And I said, “Okay That’s good enough for me. Sign me up.” 

Of course that night I got a visit from the FBI saying, “Keep you damn trap shut, kid.”  

So I said, “Great, that’s it. I’ll go on down.”

It was an interesting place during the war.  It was a city of 75,000 people. The fifth largest city in TN and the governor didn’t even know it was there for quite a while. It had one fifth the power consumption of New York and tremendous operations going on down there and a tremendous sociological experiment because you had kids who had never used any indoor plumbing and sons of Nobel laureates all going to school together.  

They had a newspaper down there, the only thing that was unusual about it was that they never used last names because they didn’t want to get some of these famous names out there. That led to all sorts of tricky things. My wife’s maiden name was Compton and one of the big guys on the project was Arthur Holly Compton, a Nobel laureate that had done a lot of work on cosmic rays. So one time at a get together, my wife’s sister was introduced to a Mrs. Compton and she said, “Oh what part of the family are you from?” And the woman just flushed and turned red and walked away. 

She thought, “Gee what was that all about.” After the war she found out that all these guys were under code names and he was Dr. Holly and she was supposed to have been introduced by the code name so they weren’t going to go any further on that.  So there was a lot of that kind of stuff that went on that was really very interesting.

They had to build this whole city out of nothing. They had to put churches and bowling alleys and a bus system. It was one of the largest bus systems in the country because they had to take stuff out to these plants that were spread out all over the place.  But people down there had been very isolated. TVA had only come in about 10 years before and a lot of people had to be pushed off their land for the TVA dams that were flooded so they settled in this nice black oak ridge valley and then another government crowd comes in and shoves them off of that land. So they were pretty upset about that. Of course they didn’t remember that their ancestors had pushed Cherokees off of their land and sent them across the country. So it’s a process that continues. Some of these people spoke almost Elizabethan English. They did not use contractions for instance and they had all theses strange words and they talked like those old country songs based on those Elizabethan ballads, you know. They came in contact with all these sharp urban kids from NYU and so forth. It was a really interesting combination. They had guys who were used to chasing girls and then you had the Daisy May girls who were used to chasing guys. So there were some collisions there, you know. 

A frontier town is a very different philosophy than anything else and this really was a frontier town. People living in a frontier town have a very different attitude about everything. The scientists that had come down lived very sedentary lives up to that point, the construction people of course were used to living in one place and then moving to another. My wife’s brother was in construction and he said that he had started eleven lawns in ten years. So each placed he moved into he operated as though he would live there forever but he knew he would only be there for about a year. But the scientists would be down there for five years, ten years and they would be saying, “Of course we don’t bring our good silver and our good plates down here because we’re only going to be here for a short time.” 

That whole frontier town philosophy and the attitude you take towards your life and towards your job is very different. The people who move in afterwards, after the war after the secrecy was down, of course they have a different attitude towards the frontiersmen and toward the town and toward their life and so forth. In some ways, of course it was a very capitalistic sort of a place and yet it was also sort of a socialist utopia too. We had free bus service. We had free electricity. We had free coal. They delivered coal, they delivered very dusty coal and every time there would be a little dust explosion and there was soot all over the house that you had to clean up. The layout of the town was very unusual. It was set around circles and you had the kitchen, the backdoor and the bedroom looked out on the street and the big picture window looked out on the circle. People would put BBQ pits out there and stuff like that and it became sort of like a neighborhood. It was a very interesting place.

I went back for the 50th anniversary of the town back in 1992 and they had asked me to talk to their Rotary club and they had a big special edition of the paper, Oak Ridge in the 1940s. Here was a big picture of all the people at the end of the war holding up the paper saying “War Ends” and right in the front of the picture was me. That picture had been taken fifty years and I never saw it until that day. I just wrote a book and I used that picture as the frontispiece

I went down as just a young engineer out of school. I was just twenty-one. I was down there being an engineer and about three months after I had been there they set up a special Tiger Team of seven guys under a senior engineer to just cruise the plant and they called it “Process Improvement Team.”  

The security was such that people were assigned to a certain place and they got a badge that said they were only allowed in that place. We got badges that said we could go anywhere, which was really great. We just cruised the plant and found stuff that we thought was a problem or that could be fixed and we did about 300 projects with little tiny bits and pieces of things to make little improvements.  

Then after the war a man by the name of Capt. Rickover came down, they invited Gen. Groves, they invited some of the top industrial people to learn this new technology.  They hurriedly set up a school and lectured to people. Capt. Rickover came down from the Navy and got the idea that we ought to make an atomic submarine. He hired me in 1949 and we went back to Washington and I became his technical director in that program.  

We made 220 nuclear power plants and the world’s first civilian plant. President Eisenhower wanted to have a civilian program, Atoms for Peace Program, and show that atomic energy was more important than just a bomb. He set that up and tried to get somebody to run it, but the only person that was really in a position to run it was Rickover. So we ended up with that program too.  

We had to completely reverse our whole attitude. Everything was classified and we had to declassify it and set it up to set up an industrial technology because it was more than just building a demonstration plant. He wanted to build a plant that had all the technology for it, and the handbooks and codes and standards which is what we did. Setting up the whole process of safety review, no one had ever done this before. How do you set up safety standards? 

So we set up an advisory committee on safety, and we started looking around at what kind of standards you use.  People came back and they said, “My God, you should see.  Do you realize they’ve got 300 tons of liquid chlorine outside of most of these big towns.” That was the WWI German poison gas you know. All it would take to bust open one of the rusty tanks. So looking at that we knew we had to do better.  

It was the only industry in history that started out with the whole idea that we were going to do a safety thing first. So this whole very special attention to safety ended up, in terms of the public attitude, backfiring. The public got in the frame of mind that “Gee, this must be very terrible if they take such precautions.” And the people in the game today still do this and I think it’s really dumb. Instead of talking about safety and how inherently safe this stuff really is they say, “Boy we’ve got barriers and armed guards and all this stuff.”

The fact of the matter is that you’ve got this terrorism stuff now, but the fact of the matter is there is nothing we could do if one of this to create a problem. You could blow it up and it wouldn’t make any difference. But people don’t know that and a lot of money is being made out of the fact that people are scared about radiation. And it’s a lot better to say, “Hey this is mysterious and dangerous and you give me a lot of research money and I’ll protect you.” So this is what they’re doing and it’s going to wreck the game.

The dirty bomb is a real phony. This is the idea of having a chemical explosion with radioactive material wrapped around it. So in the first place you build something like this. You’ve got to get this radioactive stuff because you’ve got to shield it so you’ve got to put tons and tons of shielding around it. And suppose you blow it up and it goes BANG! And this stuff scatters on the ground for a few feet and sits there you back off and you don’t eat it and you don’t breathe it. So what’s the problem. So people talk about this atomic waste and nuclear waste has never hurt anybody and it never will. Baby carriages kill people, bicycles kill people. Nuclear waste has never hurt anybody and it never will. Nuclear plants store forty years of nuclear waste and they can store another forty years. They take this attitude that nuclear waste is terrible because it lasts for so long.  They’ve got it completely backwards. The only difference between a radioactive toxin and non-radioactive toxin is that radioactive toxin decreases in its toxicity. All the other stuff boron, lead, mercury—they last forever.  

The reason that I got into the Manhattan Project in the first place, of course it was a war project and the bomb was very important and I feel no apologies for working on the bomb. I think the bomb saved lives. More than that, I never thought of it as just a weapon. Energy is the most critical physical attribute that humanity can have. We only have a few sources. We have fire, falling water, flowing wind and then we have burning coal, wood, oil. Now we have the most important energy of all, energy from the atom and that’s now available to us in unlimited quantities in a non-polluting form. There is something like five times as much radioactivity radiated from a coal plant as from a nuclear plant.  

Radioactivity is the most natural thing in the world. Your body is radioactive. Your food is radioactive.  he air, the water is radioactive. And you know we hear about these things where there was a little leak here [and people say], “Well all this radioactivity got out.”  The whole earth is radioactive! People go to protest meetings and they fly and they get more radioactivity from the cosmic rays up in the air then they would from the accident itself.  

Radioactivity is a natural part of life. The earth was much more radioactive when life first evolved. Everyday it’s getting less radioactive. The only thing that keeps the earth habitable from a temperature standpoint that keeps the core molten is the radioactivity in the earth’s core. Scientists have done experiments where they’ve taken mice in the lab and taken lead to shield them and they actually have radioactivity in their body.  Potassium is one of the natural radioactive substances. So if you prepare potassium that doesn’t have any radioactivity in it, the mice get sick and die. Radioactivity is a natural and essential part of life. Like everything else, a small amount of radioactivity is beneficial. When it was first discovered it was used to treat gangrene and low-grade infection and didn’t actually kill the bacteria, but it stimulated the body’s immune system to go tackle the [bacteria]. But as Paracelsus said back in 1514, “Nothing is poison but the dose.” That applies to radiation just as much as to anything else. A small stress on the body and the body responds to that—just like exercise. A vaccine, a vaccine is a stress that the body rises to defend. 

Copyright 2013 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.