Departures: Loudon, TN (1998)

When my friend and then-manager, 'Shreck went to Tennessee, he'd said he'd been impressed by the power, the electrical power.

[Photo: tree]

Neighbor's house, a (barely visible) power tower, lightning-struck tree

When my uncle drove us (my parents and me) up to his house, electricity was everywhere. Tired of Midwestern winters and desiring proximity to Eastern hospitals, he and his wife had moved to the outskirts of Loudon, TN. Loudon was about 30 miles outside the small city of Knoxville. Loudon was a sparse and scraggly community, and its outskirts were even sparser.

As he drove us up to his house, we could see the high-power lines and their towers. They were the tallest structures for miles around. As we stepped out of the car, we could hear the buzz and crackle of the high-power lines.

The area was a new subdivision, and I picked up a flier. The flier mentions "underground utilities," and indeed the house's cable, gas, electricity, and water come in underground. Nevertheless, people who object to power poles might not like this location.

Still, my uncle likes this place, as does his wife; also, my aunt (sister of my uncle) and her husband followed him here from Wisconsin. Maybe the towers aren't bad, not when set among lush green hills.

My uncle showed us the tree in his front yard, the tree which had been struck by lightning. There was a barely discernable path of scorch down one side, a grassless spot of lawn where an electrified root poked close to the surface.

Before we'd gone on this trip, I'd looked at a map of Tennessee, finding Loudon. I learned that Oak Ridge was nearby. John McPhee (in his The Curve of Binding Energy) had written about the strange feeling in beholding this killer technology amidst the woods and hills of Oak Ridge. Dick Feynman had written about picking safes at Oak Ridge. I wondered how close I would be able to get to the famed site.

Pretty close. You can take a self-guided tour of the Oak Ridge National Lab, seeing some of the sites. Or you can do what my dad, my uncle Frank, and I did--take a tour via the American Museum of Science and Energy, which is in the town of Oak Ridge.

So we drove to Oak Ridge. The roads to Oak Ridge are lined with fences announcing that trespassing is forbidden. A few times, the road passed over creeks or rivers, and there were simple bridges. Close to Oak Ridge, we passed over some body of water--I guess there was a body of water. I couldn't see it. Instead of a simple bridge, this time, there was a large concrete structure, and a sign reading, "No Fishing. No Water Contact."

At the museum, there was a sign-up sheet for the tour. I was all set to write down one of my aliases when I noticed someone looking over my shoulder. It was some museum official. I looked at him inquisitively.

"Just making sure you're not having any problem with the form," he said, "We have to do background checks on all the names, and it would be a pity if you couldn't go just because you made a mistake." What a charming Southern accent he had. Not really the sort of accent you'd expect to hear from someone spoiling your fun. I grinned, and said, "Guess I'd better use my real name, then, eh?" And I did.

There was just enough time before the tour for us to grab some lunch at an eatery at the strip mall nearby, so we did. Frank pointed out "Books-a-Million," a bookstore across the road from the restaurant. It would be the only bookstore I would see in Tennessee. Even though we spent a few hours in Knoxville. Even though we kept an eye out for a bookstore while we were in Knoxville. But I'm wandering off topic.

Soon we were packed onto a little bus which wended its careful way to the Y-12 plant. The Y-12 plant had made U-235 from regular Uranium by means of a method that the bright folks at UCB had came up with. As it happened, this method was more complicated, more expensive, and more error-prone than the gas diffusion method that had already been in use at the K-25 plant down the proverbial road. Nowadays, Y-12 is a sort of industrial research center. It's out of the nuclear business, and instead does contract research for businesses.

Our tour guide, Doug Trauger didn't have much to say about the Y-12 plant's current activities. Doug was there as a historical guide. He was one of the original scientists, had been in on the Manhattan Project before it came to Oak Ridge. Doug didn't really start to shine until we were at the graphite reactor at Oak Ridge National Lab. But there he talked about his role.

The High Priest

He'd come up with some kind of filtering system--spent fuel rods were dumped into a water tank under the reactor, and there was a possibility that radioactive steam would try to escape. He'd figured out how to filter the steam before letting it into a cooling tower. He told us that while America's nuclear history had some notable accidents in it, nuclear power was nevertheless viable. As long as people behaved carefully and honorably, waste would not be a problem.

He was like a high priest of Big Science, dispensing wisdom I was only peripherally qualified to understand. I smiled, nodded, tried to absorb.

He wanted to bury nuclear waste in the salt flats of the American Southwest. (Only later on would I find out that he wasn't speculating, that this plan had actually been put into action.) Tunnels could be dug far below the earth there, not over any aquifer. There was little life there to endanger. The top of each mine would be covered with a grass-covered berm. It occurred to me that each of these berms needed a monastic order devoted to it. I figured that hundreds of years from now, people would have forgotten the original purpose of the berms. They might know there was a "curse" associated with the berms. A group of people handing down knowledge of the berm's contents could save future generations.

I shook my head to clear it. Either Doug or I was delusional, and I couldn't figure out which.


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