Returning to the secret government lab where my grandfather worked

Apr 4, 2017

My grandfather, Charles Barton Sr., was a man of many contradictions. The son of religious Appalachian parents, he ended up working on some of the most cutting-edge chemistry of his day for the US Atomic Energy Commission.

He got to do that work just an hour from his hometown, in the once-secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It didn’t exist before 1942 when the US Army Corps of Engineers commandeered a whole valley 20 miles west of Knoxville to build facilities for the Manhattan Project.

They constructed several large plants in the service of enriching enough uranium for one nuclear bomb: Little Boy, later dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The city to house Oak Ridge’s workforce was gated, and all visitors had to check in with guards to enter.

My grandfather never worked on the bomb. He moved with his young family to Oak Ridge in 1948. The city opened its gates to the world soon after that. And although the storage of weapons-grade uranium is still a big (and controversial) part of Oak Ridge’s economy, post-World War II science here turned to the development of nuclear energy. My grandfather took a job on a chemistry research team tasked with solving some of the basic early problems of how to build a nuclear reactor.

I can find some of his early research papers online, but as a nonscientist, they make almost no sense to me. My grandfather died in 2009, at the age of 97, so it’s too late to ask him to explain. What really interests me is the contrast between this rigorous scientist and the man I knew in retirement — dressed for church in his Sunday best, holding his worn King James Bible in his hand, ready to sing his favorite hymns in a wavering but enthusiastic voice. He had a brother who worked in coal-mining camps and another who was a charismatic minister.

The issue, though? Oak Ridge was no ordinary part of Appalachia, especially in its early days. The Manhattan Project drew scientists from Ivy League universities and Europe. Its design and mandate came from the federal government. It was, in many ways, a foreign colony.

Recently, I went back to Oak Ridge with my dad and uncle — who both grew up there — to find out more about my grandfather’s scientific life and some of the cultural contradictions it encompassed.

The city, where today around 30,000 people live, still retains the vibe of a place designed by an Army general. Its residential areas are dominated by five basic types of houses (our family owned a “D”), with sidewalks only on one side of the street — as if not to waste too much sidewalk. Coming here as kid, I just assumed East Tennessee looked like a movie set from the 1940s.

It sounds like one, too, when I talk with my uncle, Charles Barton Jr.

“In the early days, I would ask Daddy, ‘Daddy, what do you do at work?’” my uncle recalls in the car. “And he would answer, ‘That is a government secret.’”

We park at the Y-12 History Center in Oak Ridge. It’s a fairly new repository for artifacts, images and oral histories about nuclear research here. Our guide, Ray Smith, worked in maintenance at the Y-12 for more than 40 years before convincing the Department of Energy to build this center for the public.

A room off the lobby is filled with gadgets — old lathes, equipment for space missions, an antique laptop computer. My grandfather would’ve found many things to love here. And from the way Ray Smith is beaming at my relatives, it seems that he would’ve loved my grandfather.

Smith laughs as my dad, David Barton, tells him an anecdote from childhood. In the 1950s, Granddaddy could reveal one of the projects he was working on: the ANP project. As a kid, though, my dad heard those initials as “A&P” — a local grocery chain — and using the logic of a child, assumed his father worked at the grocery store.

ANP actually stood for Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion. My grandfather, for a time, took part in the failed endeavor to build compact nuclear reactors for airplanes.

After our tour of the history center, I ask Smith the question I’ve come here with: How unusual was it for a native Tennessean like my grandfather to come here not to do maintenance, as Smith did — but as a scientist in the lab?

“That was very unusual,” Smith said.

My grandfather was a respected chemist in the lab. Outside, though, he was a devoted Southern Baptist who attended a working-class church. And that, my dad says, confused his colleagues quite a bit.

“They just had a hard time reconciling how anybody that was, you know, such a brilliant scientist, could be, could go to a fundamentalist Baptist church,” he says.

“Also he was a ‘dry,’” my uncle chimes in. Meaning, my grandparents didn’t drink. Not only that, they led a campaign in the 1950s to ban the sale of alcohol in Anderson County, where Oak Ridge is situated. Prohibition was still a cause among the conservative Protestants in this part of the country. But certainly not among my grandfather’s urbane scientific colleagues. He wanted to take their wine away (and in fact, the “dry” referendum eventually passed).

My uncle Charles thinks that cultural clash is the real reason why his dad started getting less prestigious — yet more dangerous — assignments at his lab. After the ANP project went bust, he was assigned the task of figuring out the safe handling of plutonium, a highly toxic radioactive element that had already killed several scientists exposed to it.

My grandfather surveyed the existing research and eventually came up with a set of best practices for handling plutonium in the lab, including the construction of appropriate glove boxes. He would give lectures on this topic until the end of his career. My dad and uncle remember the plutonium phase as a stressful time — their father was in charge of two kilos of plutonium, after all. But it was more than just the dangerous assignment — safety, while extremely important, is not the most prestigious area of nuclear research. And that’s the area where my grandfather spent most of the rest of his career.

My uncle isn't a scientist himself, but in recent decades he's devoted himself to resurrecting and augmenting his dad’s work online, at a blog he calls The Nuclear Green Revolution. The same type of reactor my grandfather helped research to power aircraft? It’s called a molten-salt breeder reactor, and my uncle’s convinced it could be a safe source of energy today. There are others who agree — and they view my grandfather as something of a pioneer.

But that doesn’t answer the bigger question I have: How did my grandfather reconcile his fundamentalist beliefs with scientific research? And why did he sacrifice some of his ambitions as a scientist for the tenets of his faith? I’ll never know the real answers, but I find a big clue at another museum in Oak Ridge, the American Museum of Science and Energy. Back in the summers when my grandparents would leave me here for hours on end, this place used to be called the Atomic Museum.

The ground floor contains a whole section on Oak Ridge’s wartime history. My father and I look over some of the documents on display, including eminent domain letters from the Army to farmers in the area in 1942. They were promised an undisclosed sum and given about three weeks to vacate their homes.

My family owned no land here, but my dad’s uncle Robert, who worked in a coal-mining camp nearby, once talked about the day the Army took over the valley. “One morning, he drove through it and next afternoon, it was closed and stayed closed,” my dad tells me as we stand in front of the history display. “And the people that lived here, all these little communities and stuff, they were paid for their land, and they were told they had to move immediately.” No one could complain because “it was a war. There was a war on.”

Those are scars that run deep, and when my grandfather moved to Oak Ridge in 1948, he entered a community who felt those scars still. He actually moved in with his oldest brother, the charismatic minister, while waiting for a house to open up in Oak Ridge. Between his family and his work, he chose family.

The fault line between the new "Atomic City" and the surrounding countryside was real. But there were other fault lines as well. A big one is around the notion that Oak Ridge, in essence, saved the world by helping to build the nuclear weapon that won the war. My dad believed it growing up. Now, he’s not so sure.

“I mean, I just happen to be of the opinion that it could well have been won without it,” he says beneath a looming portrait of Harry S. Truman in the museum.

That my dad would state his doubts so boldly in this place feels a little weird. But I’ve come to realize that doubt is the real legacy of my grandfather’s scientific side. Late in his life, Granddaddy started to express doubts about fundamentalism. He left the Southern Baptist church, feeling that it was getting too conservative. He spoke out against nuclear proliferation. He even grew a goatee, voted Democratic and drank wine with dinner.

This made him much more relatable to me, but my uncle Charles says all this change did not come easily to his dad. “My father was a man of great integrity,” Charles says. “That was his greatest strength and his greatest flaw. Change meant a crisis.”

Back at the old Atomic Museum, I drag my dad out of the history section (which is, of course, empty) to the fun upstairs exhibits that I remember, like a large-scale replica of an atom with orbiting electrons. My dad says it’s out of proportion.

“If there was a nucleus that size, the electrons would be miles and miles away from us right now. They wouldn’t be anywhere close,” Dad proclaims.

My dad is a musician. I’m a journalist. We don’t really know anything that profound about atoms, but a young kid is staring at us like we’re science gods. I feel the need to rush on through the displays.

Then we see it: the glove box display. It’s a crude version of the type of device my grandfather helped to develop back in the 1950s. Inside are plastic blocks and the kind of puzzle you might give a baby.

I stick my hands inside the awkward gloves. They remind me of coming here as a little girl, when I had no idea what any of this meant.

Oak Ridge opens up a lot of questions. Was it right to drop the nuclear bomb that was partly made here? Did the government need to force people off their land and build a secret city?

But while I tinker with the puzzle, a lot of these questions fall away. My grandfather’s name isn’t attached to any famous discoveries or disasters. Most science isn’t about those things anyway. It’s about showing up to discover new things every day — and being curious, consistent and skeptical, no matter what is raging around you.


From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI