ORNL – 2017

On Wednesday, 4 October, 38 students, accompanied by Joe Caddell and Carolyn Pumphrey, set out across the Blue Ridge Mountains for Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The group included students from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University.

Thursday morning was spent at the Y-12 National Security Complex (a United States Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration facility. It was built as part of the Manhattan Project for the purpose of enriching uranium for the first atomic bombs. Since World War II, it has operated as a manufacturing facility for nuclear weapons components and related defense purposes.

The visit opened with a lecture on Y12 missions and activities, followed by a tour of the site. From a high overlook, we got an overview of the facility, including the construction site of the new uranium depository, and the so–called “nun’s gate” where five years earlier an 82-year-old nun, and two fellow Plowshares activists entered the Y-12 complex as part of an anti-war campaign. The visit continued with a tour of the building which had housed the Manhattan Project calutrons which had been used for separating the isotopes of uranium. After the tour, students participated in a two-hour table top training exercise dealing with emergency procedures.

From Y12 students headed for the Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL). After a working luncheon dedicated to learning about jobs and opportunities at the Lab, students attended a lecture on the evolution of IAEA Safeguards.  To end the day, they toured the historic Clinton graphite reactor. Built during World War II as part of the effort to develop atomic weapons, the reactor was designed to show that plutonium could be extracted from irradiated uranium.

On Friday, students again moved between lectures and experiential learning. The lectures were wide ranging, nicely balancing technical talks (e.g. how to safeguard uranium enrichment) with personal experiences (e.g. the description of a visit by an ORNL official to North Korea).  In the afternoon, students were taken to see the Lab’s “supercomputers” and “Everest” – the lab which provides tools to visualize and analyze simulation data created on the supercomputers. Students also visited the Portal Monitor Testbed and engaged in a hunt for radioactive samples.  This provided them with a glimpse of the technical difficulties of detecting radioactive sources in the field. Armed with T-shirts and mugs, tired but happy, the group returned to North Carolina, arriving home at midnight.

The two day excursion received rave reviews from participating students.  A common theme was surprise and gratification that our hosts were able to communicate challenging concepts and to create an inclusive, intellectual atmosphere. Several confessed that they had signed up with some trepidation, half expecting to be overwhelmed.  Instead, “just enough science was given to contextualize a difficult topic and place it in the appropriate historical context.” Students were impressed by the enthusiasm, dedication, and knowledge of the speakers.  To conclude, “Going to Oak Ridge was a truly transformational experience. It’s one thing to learn about nuclear technology and the history behind it, but having the chance to go see where all of the action has and still does happen is a truly irreplaceable experience.”