Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor speech: National Day of Remembrance for nuclear weapons program workers

Posted on October 30, 2013

        Today I want to give thanks and show respect to World War II and Cold War heroes who served in our nation’s nuclear weapons programs on this fifth National Day of Remembrance. They weren’t serving in the heat of battle, but in the laboratory– handling materials on a daily basis that ranged from benign to toxic and highly radioactive.  These materials posed risks that many scientists didn’t understand at the time.

      Today in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the American Museum of Science and Energy and Cold War Patriots are gathering to celebrate former workers and view a quilt that honors nuclear workers for their contribution to America’s safety. This one-of-a-kind Remembrance Quilt has 1,250 commemorative hand-written quilt squares that form an American flag that measures 17 feet by 11 feet.

      I want to specifically remember Bill Wilcox for his service to our country and passion for preserving Oak Ridge history.  Bill passed away this September. He was a former manager of the K-25 operations, a Manhattan Project veteran, and the Official Historian for the City of Oak Ridge.  

      In 1943, Bill was hired by Tennessee Eastman on a "Secret, secret, secret!" project in an unknown location.  When he started at Eastman he was told, “As chemists you’ll have to know that you’ll be working [on] this project with a substance called uranium. That is the last time that you will hear that word or you will speak it until after the war. And if you are ever heard speaking the word you will be subject to discharge from our employment immediately, and very likely prosecuted by the United States government, and may end up in jail. Is that clear?”

      In Oak Ridge, ground was broken for the Y-12 plant in February of 1943, and by the end of the summer they started installing complex physics machines, called calutrons.  About 1,000 calutrons were installed at Y-12.

      How where these calutrons operated?  Tennessee Eastman said that the calutrons couldn’t be run as an experiment, but should be run like an industrial plant—rather than manuals, there should be a simple red line on Meter A.  The operator would turn Knob A until the needle was on the red line on Meter A.

      However, General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, along with physicists, disagreed. So they took five calutrons and ran them for a week with the best physicists and then another week with girls right out of high school that kept the needle on the red line of the meters. Wilcox said that, “After a week the girls had won hands down in terms of productivity.”

      These women were called the “Calutron Girls.” One Calutron Girl first learned of the war effort in Oak Ridge, when she was at a café in Sweetwater, Tenn.  She was working in a hardware store at the time.  The store had a big window where people from the surrounding counties put photos of their sons who went away to war.  She had the job of straightening up the photos when the heat from the window caused the cardboard frames to buckle.  With great dignity, the families would take down the pictures of their fallen soldiers.

      Wanting to help the war effort, she went to Oak Ridge, where there was “mud everywhere, and green Army trucks, and vehicles, and soldiers, and that was just inside the gate.”   As a Calutron girl, she wore a blue uniform.  The chemical workers wore white.  She said, “You weren’t allowed to go in the other room… you’d stick out like a sore thumb, a blue something in a white-uniformed place…But they let us go over—towards the end… they told us to take all the bobby pins out of your hair before you go out there because it would yank your bobby pins out.”

      She remembers that “You couldn’t talk. You couldn’t say anything to anybody about where you worked, what building, when you left the plant. In fact, there were huge banners up all over the plant: ‘When you leave here what you see here stays here.’ And you weren’t allowed to tell even… somebody [that] worked on the same thing you did.” There were signs everywhere: “Keep your mouth shut!” “Loose lips sink ships!” “See no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil” with posted fines of $10,000 and warnings of jail time. 

      One of the curious things about Oak Ridge was that these rail cars came in every week, but nobody ever saw any product going out. The reason was that the product went out in a standard-sized briefcase every week chained to the wrist of a military officer, in plainclothes.  He would get on the train and go to Chicago to exchange the briefcase.

      During 1945, a different process at the K-25 building was surprisingly successful and cost less than 10 percent of the cost of the Y-12 process. The K-25 building was a mile-long U-shape—once the world’s largest building under one roof.  The operators had to use bicycles just to get around their building. 

      The successful K-25 process ran full blast for another 20 years, while the Y-12 plant received a new mission.

      These efforts, along with others by our nuclear weapons workers across the country, won World War II and the Cold War. At the peak of the Cold War, nearly 600,000 workers across the country were involved in the research and production of nuclear weapons.

      Today, many former nuclear weapons workers are retired.  Many of them are sick.  Some are dying.  The government is helping these sick nuclear workers through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program created by Congress in 2001.

      This program provides compensation to those who were exposed to radiation and toxic materials, while building our nuclear weapons, especially those that were instrumental in our winning the Cold War. This program receives claims from all 50 states—nearly 100,000 individual workers.

      This program is especially important to Tennessee.  Tennessee has the highest number of claims over any other state—more than 14,000 workers. Tennesseans, mostly former workers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Y-12 and K-25, have received more than $1.7 billion in compensation and paid medical bills, according to the Department of Labor.

      Today, the nuclear workers across the country continue this heroic legacy to advance nuclear power, nuclear medicine and other technology that continue to make our lives better and keep our country safe.

    I am privileged to work with Senator Mark Udall in honoring these patriots who worked countless hours with little-understood hazardous materials to build our country’s nuclear deterrent.

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