A talk next week in Livermore will examine lives and working conditions at one of the secret production facilities that contributed nuclear fuel to the U.S. atom bomb project during World War II.
Speaker will be author Janet Beard, whose historical novel “The Atomic City Girls” was published last year. Its setting was the vast uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Beard’s talk is part of the Rae Dorough Speaker Series. It is scheduled to begin in Livermore’s Bankhead Theater at 7:30 p.m. next Thursday.
Beard grew up in eastern Tennessee, where a childhood visit to an Oak Ridge science museum left lasting memories.
Years later, shortly after her first novel had been published, she had what she described as an “Aha!” moment when she saw a television documentary about Oak Ridge.
She realized there was a story to be told about people and unusual working conditions at a time when the nation was at war against powerful European and Asian adversaries.
Historical research soon helped her flesh out her idea.
As a writer, she said, she tends to plan carefully before starting to write. Her research included extensive reading of oral histories.
“That’s the great thing about writing historical fiction….You have this great excuse to spend a lot of time reading and digging up all this old history…without having to really struggle to come up with plot and characters.
“By the time I had done all my research…I had pretty much figured out who the characters were going to be and had an idea of the plot.”
A number of the book’s broad themes resonate today: responsibility for actions taken during wartime, the rise of big government, racism, patriotism, the influence of secrecy on democratic processes.
Despite the book’s title, which Beard said was chosen by the publisher, principal characters include men as well as women.
One main player is a New York-born physicist from Ernest Lawrence’s Rad Lab in Berkeley, where the method for enriching uranium enrichment was developed.
Unlike most Oak Ridge workers, the fictional physicist knows the purpose of the project and is troubled by it.
Most workers know nothing beyond the assurance that they are “contributing to the war effort.” They welcome a steady wage, but they work at dull jobs, turning simple dials on mysterious black boxes, forbidden to discuss what they do on pain of instant dismissal.
The contrast between the knowledge of the few and the ignorance of the many provides a tension that will not be resolved until the purpose of the Oak Ridge plant becomes clear after the uranium bomb is used over Hiroshima.
“The Atomic City Girls” offers a view of historical events that changed the world forever.
Locally, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory would start up less than a decade later, with the Livermore campus of Sandia National Laboratory following shortly. Both are part of a larger U.S. nuclear weapons complex today.
Globally, the political and technological rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would last for decades, morphing into new and perhaps more dangerous forms as the USSR collapsed and as nuclear weapons technology spread around the world.
Next week’s talk will not be the first hosted by the Rae Dorough Speaker Series on such issues. A discussion nearly a decade ago was summarized in the Independent.
The story is available on the Independent’s website at www.independentnews.com/news/can-nuclear-weapons-be-eliminated-two-experts-discuss-options-issues/article_fa10a038-e7bc-11df-99ca-001cc4c03286.html.
Beard’s Bankhead talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 14. Tickets are available online at raedoroughspeakerseries.org/tickets/. They may also be purchased at the Bankhead Theater box office, 2400 First Street, Livermore, Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m., or by calling (925) 373-6800.