Argonne was initially formed to carry out Enrico Fermi's work on nuclear reactors as part of the Manhattan Project, and it was designated as the first national laboratory in the United States on July 1, 1946. In the post-war era the lab focused primarily on non-weapon related nuclear physics, designing and building the first power-producing nuclear reactors, helping design the reactors used by the US's nuclear navy, and a wide variety of similar projects. In 1994 the lab's nuclear mission ended, and today it maintains a broad portfolio in basic science research, energy storage and renewable energy, environmental sustainability, supercomputing, and national security.
UChicago Argonne, LLC, the operator of the laboratory, "brings together the expertise of the University of Chicago (the sole member of the LLC) with Jacobs Engineering Group Inc." Argonne is a part of the expanding Illinois Technology and Research Corridor. Argonne formerly ran a smaller facility called Argonne National Laboratory-West (or simply Argonne-West) in Idaho next to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. In 2005, the two Idaho-based laboratories merged to become the Idaho National Laboratory.
Argonne began in 1942 as the "Metallurgical Laboratory" at the University of Chicago, which became part of the Manhattan Project. The Met Lab built Chicago Pile-1, the world's first nuclear reactor, under the stands of a University of Chicago sports stadium. Considered unsafe, in 1943, CP-1 was reconstructed as CP-2, in what is today known as Red Gate Woods but was then the Argonne Forest of the Cook County Forest Preserve District near Palos Hills. The lab was named after the surrounding Argonne Forest, which in turn was named after the Forest of Argonne in France where U.S. troops fought in World War I. Fermi's pile was originally going to be constructed in the Argonne forest, and construction plans were set in motion, but a labor dispute brought the project to a halt. Since speed was paramount, the project was moved to the squash court under Stagg Field, the football field on the campus of the University of Chicago. Fermi told them that he was sure of his calculations, which said that it would not lead to a runaway reaction, which would have contaminated the city.
Other activities were added to Argonne over the next five years. On July 1, 1946, the "Metallurgical Laboratory" was formally re-chartered as Argonne National Laboratory for "cooperative research in nucleonics." At the request of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, it began developing nuclear reactors for the nation's peaceful nuclear energy program. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the laboratory moved to a larger location in unincorporated DuPage County, Illinois and established a remote location in Idaho, called "Argonne-West," to conduct further nuclear research.
In quick succession, the laboratory designed and built Chicago Pile 3 (1944), the world's first heavy-water moderated reactor, and the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (Chicago Pile 4), built in Idaho, which lit a string of four light bulbs with the world's first nuclear-generated electricity in 1951. A complete list of the reactors designed and, in most cases, built and operated by Argonne can be viewed in the, "Reactors Designed by Argonne" page. The knowledge gained from the Argonne experiments conducted with these reactors 1) formed the foundation for the designs of most of the commercial reactors currently used throughout the world for electric power generation and 2) inform the current evolving designs of liquid-metal reactors for future commercial power stations.
Conducting classified research, the laboratory was heavily secured; all employees and visitors needed badges to pass a checkpoint, many of the buildings were classified, and the laboratory itself was fenced and guarded. Such alluring secrecy drew visitors both authorized—including King Leopold III of Belgium and Queen Frederica of Greece—and unauthorized. Shortly past 1 a.m. on February 6, 1951, Argonne guards discovered reporter Paul Harvey near the 10-foot (3.0 m) perimeter fence, his coat tangled in the barbed wire. Searching his car, guards found a previously prepared four-page broadcast detailing the saga of his unauthorized entrance into a classified "hot zone". He was brought before a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to obtain information on national security and transmit it to the public, but was not indicted.