Saturday, April 24, 2010

American Museum of Science & Energy

Oak Ridge, Tennessee

In its halcyon, pro-nuke buzz days, it was called the American Museum of Atomic Energy. Visitors were encouraged to have their dimes turned into "atomic dimes" -- irradiated in a special "isotope cabinet." But the museum stopped that after 1968, and changed its name in 1978.

Since then the AMSE has had to please two different camps, one wanting to celebrate America's nuclear prowess and the other wanting to stick it in a dark corner somewhere and celebrate biodiesel and wind turbines. This creates odd juxtapositions and omissions. A life-size replica of the Hiroshima bomb hangs next to a sign that reads, "Protecting Employees and Community."

Atomic stuff is still here, but so are solar panels on the museum's roof ("One of the largest solar power arrays in the Southeast."). There's a big exhibit on Einstein ("he laid the groundwork for splitting atoms") and the letter that he wrote to President Roosevelt in 1939, urging development of atomic fission -- but no mention of his equally urgent letter of 1945, begging FDR to stop.

Oak Ridge was born in 1942, when the U.S. government told the people who lived in these hills and hollows to pack up and get out. Their small farms were replaced by a gigantic industrial complex that refined useless uranium 238 into fissionable uranium 235 -- the explosive that packed the bomb that vaporized Hiroshima.

To continue reading: Click Here.

Note: I am blogging this review mainly because I visited this museum when I was twelve and it was still called the American Museum of Atomic Energy, and I received one of the irradiated dimes mentioned above. I was much impressed with it at the time, and it seems from the review that it was a better, and certainly better focused, museum in those days than it is now. But the story of the residents displaced by the atomic plants and the locals who worked in them is relevant to the story of Southern Appalachia.

A Technical Note: Uranium 238 is not "refined" into uranium 235. Uranium as it occurs naturally contains both isotopes and the fissionable uranium 235 was extracted from uranium ore in the Oak Ridge atomic plants. Also, uranium 238 is far from useless: It can be transformed into fissionable plutonium through bombardment by neutrons in a breeder reactor. Both approaches were used successfully by the Manhattan Project to create atomic bombs near the end of World War II, the one dropped on Hiroshima having been a uranium 235 bomb and that dropped on Nagasaki a plutonium bomb. Yes, I know, that's more than you ever wanted to know about that!

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