As an army engineer, Kenneth D. Nichols had the responsibility for the design, construction, and operation of the three huge Oak Ridge plants needed for the production of U-235 and a semiworks to produce the first gram of plutonium, the fissionable materials required at Los Alamos to produce the first atomic bombs during World War II. As the district engineer for the Manhattan Engineer District (MED), Nichols was also responsible for the layout and construction of Oak Ridge housing, hospital, schools, utilities, roads, shopping centers–in other words, the whole town. Although authority for running the city was delegated to other officers, Nichols was the final arbiter. From 1943 to 1946 Oak Ridge served as his headquarters and his home, despite constant travel to oversee other MED activities, including plutonium production at Richland, Washington.
Nichols was born November 13, 1907, in West Park, Ohio. In 1929 he graduated first in his class from the Military Academy at West Point and was assigned to Fort Humphreys (now Fort Belvoir) as a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. Nichols returned to school in 1931 and earned an undergraduate degree and a Master of Civil Engineering degree from Cornell. An army assignment to the Technische Hochschule and the Prussian Experimental Station in Berlin, Germany, contributed to his Ph.D. dissertation, “The Observed Effect of Geometric Distortion in Hydraulic Models.” The work contained examples from all over Europe and the United States and won the American Society of Civil Engineers Collenwood Award. He taught engineering as well as military history at West Point from 1937 to 1941, during which time another trip to Europe gave him firsthand knowledge that war with Germany was inevitable.
As Nichols reveals in his book The Road to Trinity: A Personal Account of How America's Nuclear Policies Were Made, his work in Oak Ridge forced him to learn to deal with Tennessee politics in order to establish a town as normal as possible despite its origins as a secret installation. The credit for the good basic construction of much of Oak Ridge's early housing goes to Colonel J. C. Marshall and later to Nichols. Tennessee's newest city was completed in spite of arguments for bulldozing down the valley and using cheaper construction. Marshall and Nichols's choice won out–to build more permanent houses on roads that followed the wooded contour of the naturally hilly landscape that helped hide the secret city. Nichols also convinced state officials that a new road was needed between Oak Ridge and Knoxville.
Nichols's success with scientists as well as politicians was due to his training and abilities. In addition to his formal education, he spent two years on assignment to the Engineer Topographical Survey in Nicaragua drilling foundations for locks and seeking a route for a new intercontinental canal. He also worked with the U.S. Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on engineering river structures to improve navigation and flood control of the Mississippi River and its valley.
After the war, Nichols advanced to the rank of major general and played an important role in missile development and defense planning. He became general manager of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a post he resigned in 1955. He then spent several years as consulting engineer in the fields of missile research and development as well as commercial atomic power. He died in Bethesda, Maryland, on February 21, 2000.