How a 26-Year-Old Physicist May Have Saved Oak Ridge from Nuclear Disaster

How a 26-Year-Old Physicist May Have Saved Oak Ridge from Nuclear Disaster

Way back in 1944, 26-year-old Richard Feynman took his very first airplane flight. His destination was a city that was not listed on any map; a city that was protected by gates with armed guards. Feynman was heading to Oak Ridge, TN, the top-secret location of the Clinton Engineer Works, the production installation of the Manhattan Project. Unbeknownst to the rest of the nation, and to many of the people living in Oak Ridge, the Secret City was developing the material that would be used in the world’s first atomic weapons, and, unknowingly, they were in desperate need of Feynman’s help.

Not Your Average 20-Something

As you may have suspected, Richard Feynman was not an ordinary 26-year-old. A graduate of MIT and Princeton, Feynman was a brilliant theoretical physicist whose seminars had been attended by Albert Einstein and other scientific luminaries. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Feynman was recruited to a uranium enrichment project at Princeton. In 1943, the Princeton team officially joined J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico.

It was Oppenheimer who sent Feynman on his mission to the Secret City in 1944. It had come to Oppenheimer’s attention that safety practices at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge were not up to par. Officials in Oak Ridge lacked the most up-to-date information on how to avoid a catastrophic accident caused by an explosive chain reaction. Thus, Richard Feynman was sent from Los Alamos to Oak Ridge to help the Y-12 Plant’s supervision understand how to safely store the bomb-making material they were creating.

A Brooklyn Boy in East Tennessee

It is safe to say that Richard Feynman was a bit of a fish out of water in Oak Ridge. Raised by Jewish immigrants in New York City, Feynman had a thick Brooklyn accent that undoubtedly stood out amidst the sea of Tennessee twang. Richard was also known for his impish sense of humor and eccentric hobbies, which included playing the bongos and picking combination locks.

Despite his outsider status, Feynman worked closely with Oak Ridge’s engineers, army officers, and company managers to avert a potential nuclear crisis in the Secret City. Feynman had discovered that the Y-12 Plant was storing uranium nitrate solution enriched in U-235 in drums holding 300 to 3,000 gallons. After performing some calculations, the young physicist determined that the drums were placed in potentially unsafe arrangements in a number of buildings.

To prevent any accidents, Feynman devised various geometrical layouts for safely storing dangerous materials. Richard also pored over the blueprints of plants that were under construction to identify potential safety hazards and pitfalls. According to Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick, the Y-12 Plant had been heading towards a catastrophe and some people credit Feynman’s intervention for saving lives.

Feynman Cracks Oak Ridge’s Safes for Fun

In addition to pointing out potential nuclear safety problems at Y-12, Richard Feynman identified a very different type of security issue in the Secret City: their safes were not secure. When he was stationed at Los Alamos, Feynman had picked up safecracking as a hobby in order to pass the time. The physicist spent hours tinkering with his own safe and learned a number of tricks for discovering combinations.

One Sunday in Oak Ridge, Feynman was chatting with a Manhattan Project official in his office about a secret report locked in a safe. The official couldn’t recall the combination to the safe and his secretary was out enjoying a picnic in the mountains. Feynman was given permission to play around with the safe, and after 10 minutes he had picked the lock.

On another occasion, Feynman told a colonel that the safe in his office could be opened in a half hour by a skilled safecracker, but he could do it in 45 minutes. The dubious colonel allowed Feynman to try, and when the physicist opened the safe in just 12 minutes, “the colonel’s jaw dropped and his eyes bugged out,” as Richard would later recall.

After this safecracking incident, the colonel’s secretaries banned Feynman from entering the office. The women were also instructed to change the combination of their safes if Feynman did stop by. Richard wryly observed, “That was his solution. I was the danger.”

Feynman’s Life After the War 

In the years following World War II, Richard Feynman won a Nobel Prize in Physics, became a best-selling author, and participated in the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Feynman taught at the California Institute of Technology and continued to lecture there throughout his eight-year battle with abdominal cancer, which ended in 1988. Richard Feynman’s life inspired the 1996 biopic Infinity, starring Matthew Broderick, and the 2001 play QED, starring Alan Alda.

Want to read more about the Manhattan Project? Check out our History page to learn all about Oak Ridge’s fascinating past!

This blog draws on the article “Physics genius showed Oak Ridge how to be safe” by Carolyn Krause in The Oak Ridger.