The Gates are Open
The postwar years were periods of rapid change for Oak Ridge. Before the war ended Oak Ridge relied on uniformity and secrecy to carry out their important mission. After the bombs dropped, however, the secret was out and the world became well acquainted with the self-described “Oak Ridgers.” In 1949 the gates that had once surrounded the city for surveillance were taken down and a parade to commemorate Oak Ridge’s trek toward normalization commenced.
The federal government at this time began pushing cities of the Manhattan Project (for example: Los Alamos and Hanford) to undergo a transformation from a government and military run operation to a municipal authority. This was catapulted by the signing of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 which stipulated that the research and production facilities created during WWII would now be transferred to civilian rather than military control.
Atomic Energy Act of 1946
Supporting the Act, Senator Albert Gore Sr. in his weekly broadcasts to Tennessee citizens emphasized the need of civilian control of atomic energy as a force for peace. Reflective of postwar optimism, the Act was perceived as a tool for promoting world peace by diversifying the development of atomic sciences for nonmilitary functions.
“We cannot say with too much convincing force that we want a peaceful, international control of the atom while at home, we leave it in the hands of those whose exact purpose and function is to develop it for military uses.” —Albert Gore Sr.
The task of implementing these changes was given to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) along with full control of the former Manhattan Project cities. For Oak Ridgers, the AEC control proved tumultuous, especially in concerns to their housing needs.
Maintaining that municipal incorporation could only be achieved if 100 residents owned land, Tennessee state law placed the city of Oak Ridge in a massive bind during their transition to a self-governing status. Developed under the sway of the federal government, Oak Ridgers rented their apartments and homes leaving them with few options. Tasked with converting Oak Ridge into a landowning community, the AEC faced numerous challenges as the city was never intended as a permanent residential area.
“The AEC beats the drums for Oak Ridge being a normal city until you ask for something that is half-way normal; then it is just for the special few.” —Robert Livingston, Oak Ridge resident
Residents demanded answers for the slow production of adequate housing on behalf of AEC leadership. Robert Livingston in his letter to the Oak Ridger newspaper laments, “The basic trouble is the lack of any real incentive for the AEC to provide genuinely competent personnel to direct their long-range community planning, of which Housing is a major aspect.” Also highlighted in Livingston’s letter was the unfair advantage of the high ranking citizens of Oak Ridge and their eligibility for new homes and updated features.
“The subject of house-buying in Oak Ridge is the current head-aches of most of the people here.” —Mrs. Thomas H. Handley, Oak Ridge resident
Dissatisfied with AEC management, many Oak Ridgers reached out to Senator Gore Sr. for aid. Many residents, like Mrs. Thomas H. Handley, preferred to rent over buying her home as the house prices established by the AEC were too high.
Furthermore, she asserted in her letter, “the down payment required… would strictly be a donation to the government,” which she found less than satisfactory. But whether Oak Ridgers preferred to buy or rent their homes, the problem was clear: AEC needed to go.
Atomic Energy Act of 1954
In 1954 an amendment was made to the original 1946 Atomic Energy Act that had immense effects nationally and locally within the Oak Ridge community. The Act stipulated that exclusive government control of atomic energy was disbanded in favor of growing the commercial nuclear power industry. This Act gave access to atomic technologies to private industries.
Locally, Oak Ridge was greatly impacted by the Public Law 221 section of the 1954 Act which terminated any form of federal ownership and management of the city. Under this section, Oak Ridge was now officially in charge of all functions of their community by the establishment of a local government. Most importantly, Public Law 221 resolved housing tensions by transferring the control of property sales to private purchasers within the Oak Ridge community as opposed to AEC.
This Act did not, however, reduce the power of AEC nationally. Instead, AEC was charged with a dual role as both a source of encouragement for atomic growth and production, and a regulator of all possible health concerns and hazards. The interplay between these two opposing roles was tested considerably as the United States moved further into the Cold War era. By the late 1950s early 1960s, this tension expanded into a debate between public verses private development of atomic energy. As for the AEC and the federal government, they favored the private, commercial production of atomic power.
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