Grinnell’s Richard Raridon and the Manhattan Project after 75 Years

Grinnell’s Richard Raridon and the Manhattan Project after 75 Years

By Michael McAllister

On August 9, 1945, the Oak Ridge Journal of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, carried this headline:  “Oak Ridge Attacks Japanese.”

Three days earlier, the first atomic bomb had been dropped from the Enola Gay on the city of Hiroshima in Japan, but Oak Ridge, an integral part of the chain of locations that became the Manhattan Project, had a right to assert itself.

Dr. Richard Raridon, graduate of Grinnell High School and Grinnell College, was a part of the role that Oak Ridge played in history.  Presented by Unity Point Health and Grinnell Regional Medical Center as part of the Senior Education Program (SE*ED), he brought his perspective as a participant to the Drake Community Library on Monday, May 7.

He wore a ball cap promoting Grinnell College and a t-shirt promoting the periodic table—two of the passions of his life—and gave attendees a first-hand account of the $2 billion project that ended World War II and launched the nuclear age.

The story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, can be traced to the 1930s when, Dr. Raridon said, “a number of scientists … were bombarding uranium with neutrons trying to make something beyond uranium.”  Among them were Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, in Berlin, and Lise Meitner, a nuclear physicist, who had left Germany because she was Jewish and had relocated to Sweden.  The three researchers continued to correspond, however.

The result was an unstable form of uranium and a process that came to be called nuclear fission.

“Early in 1939,” Dr. Raridon continued, “Hann and Strassmann announced to the world that they had split a few atoms and had gotten some energy out of them.”

Other scientists in the United States achieved the same results, and a consensus arose within the scientific community:  “If you can split a few atoms and get a little bit of energy, if you could make a lot of them split at once you would get a lot of energy,” Dr. Raridon said, adding, “That was the impetus for trying to make a bomb.”

Because the United States feared that Germany would pursue such an aim, a fear that proved prescient, noted scientist Albert Einstein was approached by two close acquaintances, Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard.  They urged him to use his influence with President Franklin Roosevelt to spur research into nuclear fission, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, became one of the locations of the resulting Manhattan Project.

Why was Oak Ridge chosen? Dr. Raridon explained that the location fit the requirements of the time.  It was inland more than 400 miles and thus was not vulnerable to an air attack as a coastal location might have been.  It was close to a vast supply of water and hydroelectricity because of the proximity of Norris Dam, fifteen miles upstream.  Finally, the weather was consistently warm enough that the ground would not freeze, permitting year-round construction work.

The location, however, was not empty.  More than 3,000 people lived there, some families for generations.  Many farmed; many expected to harvest crops that autumn but could not.  They were paid and forced to vacate.  In Oak Ridge and elsewhere, the federal government invoked the principle of eminent domain to accelerate the war effort.

Once involved, Oak Ridge became known as the “Secret City” and, later, as “Atomic City.”

Once the project was underway, secrecy was of utmost concern.

“During the war, you could not say ‘uranium’; they made up a code word, ‘tupeloid,’” Dr. Raridon recalled.

Within the K-25 building at Oak Ridge, 1,152 units worked to purify uranium “basically an atom at a time,” Dr. Raridon said.  The building itself, u-shaped and one-half of a mile long on each side, was the largest roofed building in the world at the time of its construction.  And it went up in a matter of months.

Most people working at Oak Ridge did not know what they were working on.  “They hired girls right out of high school,” stated Dr. Raridon, to watch the dials on the cyclotrons and keep the dials within a certain range.  “They didn’t know why they were doing it; they just knew how to do it.”

The process yielded “about enough [purified uranium] to fill up a coffee cup” each week, and Dr. Raridon reported that “a container inside a briefcase” would be transported by a man by rail from Oak Ridge to Knoxville to Chicago, “just like a traveling salesman,” and ultimately to Los Alamos.

Scientists had determined that it would take approximately 100 pounds of uranium 235 for their purposes, and “It took them until the summer of ’45 to get enough for the bomb.”

Meanwhile, a second method of creating energy involved a spin-off substance called plutonium.  It was material more unstable than uranium 235. A plutonium bomb was the type tested in New Mexico in the summer of 1945.  According to Dr. Raridon, “They didn’t want to take a bomb all the way to Japan and have it not work.”

The plutonium bomb, code named “Fat Man,” was the type dropped on Nagasaki on August 9 whereas the first nuclear weapon, “Little Boy,” had fallen on Hiroshima three days earlier.

Asked what his specific role was in the process at Oak Ridge, Dr. Raridon said that the work involved experimenting with various ways to distill water, a project to which he devoted nearly a decade until funding stopped.  He continued to work with water purification methods and analyses of natural watersheds until retirement.

One of the endeavors he mentioned was called the Sherwood Project—because “it sure would be nice if it worked.”

Oak Ridge today, with a population of 28,000, is “sort of a normal town,” according to Dr Raridon. Each day, 11,000 workers clock in. The younger people who work there tend to commute from west Knoxville, ten miles away, because “we basically don’t have any night life in Oak Ridge.”

“We worked there and we retired there,” he continued, “but we don’t go out and party at night.  We do have one sports bar, but that’s it.”

Oak Ridge is “a great placed to live,” Raridon commented.  “We get snow every now and then to remind us what it looks like. Usually we get one inch, and that stops the school busses.”

Oak Ridge, he summarized, has been “a fun place to work for thirty years.”

Still, his Grinnell roots are binding.

“It doesn’t take much of an excuse me to visit my friends here,” said Dr. Raridon.  Although a resident of Oak Ridge for some fifty years, he returns to Grinnell frequently, often in connection with his alumni work with the college.  In fact, he reported that last year he had been in Grinnell four times.

When in Oak Ridge, Dr. Raridon volunteers each week at the American Museum of Science and Energy. He is busy these days promoting commemoration of the 75thanniversary of the Manhattan Project.

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