The Graphite Reactor, designed as a small pilot plant for the production of plutonium, was built in only 11 months during the hectic days of the Manhattan Project in the "Secret City" of Oak Ridge. Its job was to show that plutonium could be extracted from irradiated uranium slugs, and its first major challenge was to produce a self-sustaining chain reaction.
Workers began loading uranium into the reactor during the afternoon of Nov. 3, 1943, and progress was swift. Before dawn on Nov. 4, Enrico Fermi was summoned from a nearby guest house. The reactor "went critical" at 5 a.m.; less than two months later, it was producing a third of a ton of irradiated uranium a day. Two months after that, Oak Ridge chemists produced the world's first few grams of plutonium.
During the 20 years the Graphite Reactor operated (1943 to 1963) it continued its pioneering role. It produced the first electricity from nuclear energy. It was the first reactor used to study the nature of matter and the health hazards of radioactivity. And for years after the war, it was the world's foremost source of radioisotopes for medicine, agriculture, industry, and other purposes.
Experiments done at the Graphite Reactor as part of the Manhattan Project literally became the basis of textbooks on reactors and radiation.
The reactor was used for the production and distribution of radioisotopes. The work done here was the foundation for unraveling the genetic code. They are also used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and in agriculture to trace phosphorus in fertilizer, and in innumerable other ways.
The oldest reactor in the world, the Graphite Reactor was designated a historic landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1966 and by the American Nuclear Society in 1992. It is part of the ORNL Public Tour, which originates at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge.
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