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Chapter 4: Olympian Feats

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VIPS AT THE ORR

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Oak Ridge Research Reactor (ORR) attracted a host of famous people, including a queen, two kings, and three future U.S. presidents—Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, and John F. Kennedy. 

Senator Kennedy's visit to Oak Ridge on February 24, 1959, was described in great detail by The Oak Ridger, but no details were included on his visit to the ORR. From the available photos and newspaper stories, we know that he visited the reactor in the afternoon with his wife Jacqueline, Tennessee Senator Albert Gore Sr., and ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg. 

ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg (second from right) shows the Oak Ridge Research Reactor control room to then Senator John F. Kennedy, Senator Albert Gore, Sr. and Jacqueline Kennedy.
ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg (second from right) shows the Oak Ridge Research Reactor control room to then Senator John F. Kennedy, Senator Albert Gore, Sr. and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Weinberg says the following about Kennedy's visit: "John Swartout, the deputy director of ORNL, and I accompanied our visitors. Since I was director, I chose to accompany Jackie. John was left to show Jack and Senator Gore around." 

Before visiting ORNL, Senator Kennedy had told 300 people at the Oak Terrace Restaurant in Grove Center that he was planning to run for president in 1960. He expressed support for peaceful uses of atomic energy and praised Senator Gore for being a leading exponent in the Senate for this cause. 

Kennedy, who was described as "youthful and personable" by The Oak Ridger, said in his talk, "Here in Oak Ridge this nation has demonstrated the vast power which results from the combination of many talents and resources—abundant power, scientific personnel, industrial capabilities, fuel supplies, and zealous government administration." 

Senator Lyndon Johnson visited the ORR in 1958, and U.S. Representative Gerald Ford toured it in 1965. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was a guest at the ORR on February 4, 1965, and Senator John Pastore visited the reactor in January 1963. 

At the Oak Ridge Research Reactor, Weinberg hosted several members of royalty. King Leopold, former ruler of Belgium, visited the ORR in September 1957, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand came in 1960. 

ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg shows a model of Building 4500-N to Queen Frederika of Greece.
ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg shows a model of Building 4500-N to Queen Frederika of Greece.

Queen Frederika of Greece toured the reactor on November 7, 1958, prompting a flurry of photographs. She was the first queen ever to visit ORNL. The ORNL News reported that the queen "revealed a keen sense of knowledge of the nuclear energy field in her conversations with ORNL scientists." 

The March 30, 1959, visit of King Hussein of Jordan, only 23 years old at the time, prompted an article in The ORNL News detailing the young monarch's life story to date. 

Other distinguished visitors to the ORR included Sardor Mohammed Davd, prime minister of Afghanistan (June 28, 1958); Sir Ahmadu Bello, premier of Northern Nigeria (1960); and Ambassador Indira Nehru of India (October 26, 1963), who later became the country's prime minister. The heads of a Soviet Union laboratory and the Soviet Academy of Science were guests at the ORR in 1959, and Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg visited the reactor in 1963.

King Hussein of Jordan operates manipulators at the Oak Ridge Research Reactor.
King Hussein of Jordan operates manipulators at the Oak Ridge Research Reactor.

Why was the Oak Ridge Research Reactor such an attraction for royalty and famous politicians? At the time, according to Weinberg, research reactors were a novelty, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy were considered an unquestionable boon to humankind. The ORR was especially appealing because it was the most powerful research reactor in the world and because the beautiful blue glow from Cerenkov radiation that suffused its core was unlike anything the visitors had ever seen. For all these reasons, the ORR was a standard stop on all VIP tours of the Laboratory. 
 
 

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