Inside the secret cities that built the atomic bomb

Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union created secret cities to house the scientists working in their nuclear weapons programs. Both nations went about this in very different ways and with very different, sometimes disastrous, results.

  • Highly secretive, closed cities were used during the Cold War to develop nuclear-grade plutonium and uranium.
  • Oak Ridge and City 40 — two such cities — highlight the world-altering impact of nuclear weapons.
  • Vacationing in the East Ural Mountains? Bring a Geiger counter.

In 1942, the U.S. Government bought 60,000 acres of land in rural Tennessee. On it, they began to build thousands of small homes, grocery stores, schools—basically the makings for a small town. It wouldn't have been all that remarkable, except for the military checkpoints places at all roads leading into the town, the billboards of a beefy Uncle Sam imploring citizens to keep quiet about their work, and the massive, sprawling facilities. Most notable was the 44-acre facility codenamed K-25. At the time, it was the largest building in the world.

Specific types of people began to move in—physicists, engineers, construction workers, medical staff, and other professionals. K-25 was the hub of their existence, and, although most did not know it, they were there to produce weapons-grade uranium.

A secret, atomic city

(Wikimedia Commons)

Women at the Oak Ridge facility operating calutrons, devices used to separate uranium isotopes from uranium ore.

Administrators settled on "Oak Ridge" as the town's name due to its rural innocuity. Over the ensuing years, Oak Ridge grew at a precipitous rate. By 1945, the town had accrued 75,000 citizens, all of whom were either employed at K-25; other, ancillary nuclear production facilities; or were family members of the employees.

The work was complicated enough that most employees had no idea what they were working on. There were rumors that they were working on some kind of synthetic rubber, but there was no way to verify this. The nuclear production facilities were unaware of the work the other facilities were doing. Within the plants themselves, everything was compartmentalized to prevent anybody from piecing things together. In an interview with New Republic, one surviving worker recalled:

"There was a time, coming home from the lab, when I couldn't talk to my wife at all. I pretty well knew what the Project was making, but I couldn't tell you. We'd sit around the dinner table and the strain was terrible. A man could bust. Then we started quarreling. Over nothing, really."

Of course, some people knew what was going on, but they had been sworn to secrecy. However, with 75,000 people working on a project of the utmost interest to the world at large, not everyone could be trusted.

The sleeper spy at Oak Ridge

Despite the many security measures taken to keep Oak Ridge and its work a secret, the project was ultimately infiltrated by the Soviet Union. George Koval, an American born to Russian immigrants, was eventually recruited by the GRU—the Soviet military intelligence agency—and joined the U.S. military with the intent of gaining access to information about chemical weapons.

Koval was talented, and the Army quickly inducted him into several technical training groups. Ultimately, he was assigned to Oak Ridge to work as "health physics officer". Essentially, his work was to monitor levels of radiation throughout the entire K-25 facility. With practically unlimited access, Koval gathered a significant amount of technical information about the construction of an atomic bomb. He, along with other spies, fed this information back through his handlers, and he is credited with drastically advancing the Soviet's nuclear developments.

The Soviet's desolate City 40

(Wikimedia Commons)

Warning sign posted on the edge of the East Ural Radioactive Tract, alternatively referred to as the East Ural Nature Reserve.

Nearly 6,000 miles away, in an isolated part of the Ural Mountains, the Soviet Union was scrambling to develop their own Oak Ridge and K-25. The first step was to build Mayak, a nuclear facility where plutonium could be refined to make a bomb. In 1946, the Soviets built a city to house the many people who would be working at the plant. In contrast with the provincial Oak Ridge, the Soviets opted for the no-frills name of "City 40." Later, however, it would be referred to as "the graveyard of the Earth."

City 40 contained 100,000 Soviet citizens, but the city itself did not appear on any maps, and the names of the citizens living and working there were erased from the Soviet census. For the first eight years of their work there, the citizens were forbidden from leaving the city or contacting the outside world in any way. As a result, little is known about the nature of life in the city. However, it is known that the people working there lived a life of relative luxury compared to the rest of the Soviet Union. They were fed well, had decent healthcare, and their children went to good schools.

All of this came at a terrible price. Because the Soviets were in a rush to catch up to the United States, the Mayak production facility was built and operated in extreme haste. The emphasis was placed on producing enough weapons-grade material to compete with the United States, rather than worker safety.

Although Koval and other spies gathered critical information for the development of atomic bombs, the information was incomplete, and the dangers of nuclear production were not fully understood. As a result, the Chelyabinsk region, in which Mayak and City 40 are located, is considered to be the most polluted place on Earth.

Workers at the Mayak plant dumped nuclear waste into a nearby river. Water from the nearby Lake Kyzyltash was used to cool the nuclear reactors, after which it was returned to the lake. Underground storage vats were built to contain nuclear waste, but these could not contain all of the radioactive material produced at the site. Instead, the excess material was dumped into the nearby Lake Karachev.

It wasn't long before something failed. Disastrously, the failure point was a cooling system in one of the storage vats for the nuclear waste. As the temperature slowly crept up, so too did the pressure. Eventually, the vat exploded with the force of 100 tons of TNT, spreading radioactive material throughout the area in an event called the Kyshtym disaster. The radioactive contamination produced by the explosion and the general pollution of the plant are estimated to be two to three times greater than that produced by the Chernobyl disaster.

upload.wikimedia.org

The red area indicates the spread of nuclear material from the Kyshtym disaster. In the lower left section of the map, the Mayak facility is pointed out (labeled "Kerntechnische Anlage Majak").

Many cities and villages in the region unknowingly used the poisonous rivers and lakes for washing and drinking water. Villagers began to catch mysterious diseases they could not explain nor treat. Eventually, they were evacuated, but the process was slow, taking between two weeks and two years, and the evacuees were not told why they had to leave their homes and all their possessions behind.

The exact number of casualties isn't known. It is estimated that between 50 to 8,000 were killed by the Kyshtym disaster alone. In an effort to keep people out and to disguise the disaster, the Soviets ironically referred to the EURT as the East Ural Nature Reserve and required special passes for entrance to the region. Information on the disaster, City 40, and EURT was only released by the Soviet Union in 1989. Today, City 40 is called Ozyrosk, and many people still live there in relative good health. Take out a Geiger counter, though, and you'll hear plenty of chirps and crackles.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Are people getting smarter or dumber? Yes.

The Flynn effect shows people have gotten smarter, but some research claims those IQ gains are regressing. Can both be right?

Surprising Science
  • Many countries made incredible gains in IQ scores during the 20th century, averaging three IQ points per decade.
  • Studies out of Europe have shown a reversal of this trend.
  • Such declines are not universal, and researchers remain unsure of what is causing them.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists turn nuclear waste into diamond batteries

They'll reportedly last for thousands of years. This technology may someday power spacecraft, satellites, high-flying drones, and pacemakers.

Woman looking at a diamond.
popular

Nuclear energy is carbon free, which makes it an attractive and practical alternative to fossil fuels, as it doesn't contribute to global warming. We also have the infrastructure for it already in place. It's nuclear waste that makes fission bad for the environment. And it lasts for so long, some isotopes for thousands of years. Nuclear fuel is comprised of ceramic pellets of uranium-235 placed within metal rods. After fission takes place, two radioactive isotopes are left over: cesium-137 and strontium-90.

Keep reading Show less

Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

Culture & Religion
  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

Keep reading Show less