The Girls of Atomic City

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan.  Simon & Schuster, 2013.

I visit Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the “Atomic City” of the title, every year because my husband grew up there and we visit his siblings who still live in the area. I knew something of its history, but learned a lot more by reading this. I’d thought the first residents were just a few thousand scientists and their assistants, but in fact the scale of this secret city was huge: 78,000 residents at its peak, including tens of thousands of non-technical support staff; extensive construction, including the largest building on earth; a major bus system; and much more. When the government decided to build a city there, many hundreds of people who had lived on the land, sometimes for generations, lost it in a matter of a few weeks. The amount of money, workers, and resources it took for the single project of enriching uranium for bomb fuel was astonishing.
I liked that the author told the story through the eyes of women of different backgrounds and skills who worked there from Oak Ridge’s inception through the war years. Workers were given only the minimum information to do their jobs, not told what they were helping develop. Security was tight and informants were everywhere. Residents had to deal with frequent waiting in lines, cramped housing, mud everywhere, and a completely unknown future.
This fascinating true story brings up profound ethical issues such as putting science to the use of large-scale killing, how much violence is justifiable for a worthwhile goal (ending a war), medical research without consent (humans injected with plutonium), and the government’s use of people’s labor without telling them the ultimate goal of their work.

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