Article Index Next Article Previous Article Feedback to Editor ORNL Review Home Page

Chapter 1: Wartime Laboratory

Back to Chapter 1


Ten years and 40 miles separate the two institutions. One was born during the Great Depression as a government-sponsored social experiment that uplifted the nation's most economically depressed region; the other was created in secrecy to produce the atomic bomb before the Nazi war machine could beat the United States to it.

At first glance, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) seem to have little in common. But they share a common geography (East Tennessee) and a common political heritage (both are products of the Franklin Roosevelt administration). Most importantly, TVA and the Laboratory have provided the scientific infrastructure responsible for the region's international reputation in two related fields: water and energy.

When TVA arrived in May 1933, the Tennessee Valley was plagued by an unruly river that drained the region's economic vitality by flooding its farms and cities. East Tennessee farmers, for example, earned less than $100 a year, and 90% of them had no electricity. TVA not only harnessed the river and electrified the valley, it also boosted the region's wage rate in 1933 by offering laborers $1 a day.

When the nuclear project entered the valley under a cloak of secrecy in the fall of 1942, perhaps no other region of the nation had fewer scientists or less sophisticated laboratory equipment. In fact, government investigators seeking a location for top-secret, war-related research found East Tennessee's isolation one of its prime attractions (another was cheap and abundant TVA electricity). The Laboratory's presence drew top scientists to the region and provided well-paying jobs for machinists, plumbers, and other craftspeople. For many East Tennessee women, the Laboratory offered their first opportunity to work outside the home.

The impacts of TVA and the Laboratory extended far beyond the construction of dams, office buildings, and scientific facilities. Spurred by soup lines at home and by Nazi armies conquering most of Europe, the two institutions launched a socioeconomic revolution in a remote region of the country that 20th-century technology had left behind.

TVA and the Laboratory, as centers of scientific research and technical application, have continued to join forces in projects of common concern. In the 1960s, the Laboratory's abiding interest in commercial nuclear power aided TVA's efforts to become one of the nation's largest nuclear utilities. In the 1970s, the two institutions joined hands in the failed effort to build the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. In the 1980s, together with the University of Tennessee, they formed a consortium of research institutions, which was designed to bring the region's scientific and technical experts closer together in an effort to better address regional and global issues related to energy and the environment. In the 1990s the three institutions continue to collaborate under the newly formed Joint Institute for Energy and the Environment. 

TVA and the Laboratory's positive impact on East Tennessee cannot be overlooked. Their scientific and technological activities have touched every hill and valley of the region. The two institutions helped transform East Tennessee from an isolated, depressed region into an international center for energy and environmental research.

Beginning of Article

Related Web sites

ORNL Review
ORNL Time Line

Historical Photo Gallery

Other ORNL History Resources

Search Magazine 
Article Index Next Article Previous Article Feedback to Editor ORNL Review Home Page