Secret Cities

We all lose things — keys, wallets, patience — but how do you lose an entire city? Hear the stories of three American towns built in a hurry but kept off the map, secure Soviet enclaves known by their post codes, ancient cities found by modern technology, and the ingenious engineering of underground dwellings.

In 1943, three ordinary-looking US cities were constructed at record speed, but left off all maps. Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Richland, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico held laboratories and sprawling industrial plants, as well as residential neighborhoods, schools, churches, and stores. The three cities had a combined population of more than 125,000 and one extraordinary purpose: to create nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan project, the U.S. military’s initiative to develop nuclear weapons.

Their design was driven by unique considerations, such as including buffer zones for radiation leaks or explosions. In each case, there were natural features, topographical features, that were considered to be favorable. In all three cases, they were somewhat remote—in the case of Hanford and Los Alamos, very remote—which offered a more secure environment, of course. But also, in the event of a disaster, an explosion or a radiation leak, that would also minimize the potential exposure of people outside the project to any sort of radiation danger. The sites were selected far from one another in case German or Japanese bombers somehow managed to penetrate that far into the United States, it would be harder for them in a single bombing run to take out more than one facility. K-25 plant at Oak Ridge, which was where they enriched uranium using the gaseous diffusion method, was the largest building in the world under a single roof, spanning more than 40 acres.
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