A forgotten legacy: How nuclear reactors built for war transformed peacetime science

July 28, 2020

X-10 Reactor at Oak Ridge, Tenn, WWII

Workers load uranium slugs into the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge in 1943.  Image: Ed Westcott/US Army/Manhattan Engineer District.

On July 16 this year, on what marks the 75th anniversary of the first nuclear bomb test, a patient may go to the doctor for a heart scan. A student may open her textbook to study the complex chemical pathways green plants use to turn carbon dioxide in the air into sugar. A curious grandmother may spit into a vial for a genetic ancestry test and an avid angler may wake up to a beautiful morning and decide to fish at one of his favorite lakes.

If any of these people were asked to think about this selection of activities from their days, it would likely strike them as totally unrelated to the rising of a mushroom cloud above the New Mexico desert three-quarters of a century ago. But each item from the list has been touched by that event.

The device that was detonated at dawn on that fateful day unleashed the energy of around 20,000 tons of TNT from a plutonium core roughly the size of a baseball. It obliterated the steel tower on which it stood, melted the sandy soil below into a greenish glass -- and launched the atomic age.

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