...Oak Ridge isn’t like most of the country’s other suburbs. The town was conceived and built by the United States government in the early 1940s as base for uranium and plutonium work, as part of the Manhattan Project. As the nuclear effort marched along, the town grew, too. By 1945, a dense suburb had taken shape, home to roughly 75,000 people. At war’s end, Oak Ridge was the fifth-largest city in the state—and all along, it was supposed to be a secret.
A government in search of a site for a secret enclave could do worse than Oak Ridge. The Clinch River ran nearby, local topography provided a natural buffer, and East Tennessee offered an abundance of electrical power for engineers, since it had just been electrified by the New Deal. The location, roughly 20 miles from Knoxville, was relatively remote, and close to train lines without being right on top of them. Before the federal government acquired 59,000 acres, the existing town, such as it was, consisted mostly of a patchwork of farmland nestled in valleys. By scattering work sites, the engineers reasoned, they could hedge their bets against catastrophe. If something went terribly wrong at one site, perhaps the hills could contain a fire or explosion.