Legacies of the Manhattan Project Conference

Legacies of the Manhattan Project Conference

The first large-scale nuclear reactor in history, the B-Reactor, in Hanford, Washington

Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) President Cindy Kelly and Program Manager Nate Weisenberg recently attended the “Legacies of the Manhattan Project: Reflections on 75 Years of a Nuclear World” conference in Richland, Washington. Hosted by the Hanford History Project at Washington State University (WSU) Tri-Cities, the conference brought together dozens of participants for four days of wide-ranging conversations. Attendees included representatives of the National Park Service and the Department of Energy, academics, activists, museum staff, and preservationists.

Among the many presentations during the four-day conference, AHF’s focused on the “Ranger in Your Pocket” digital interpretive programs as part of the panel “Engaging the Past: Understanding the Manhattan Project in the Twenty-First Century.” The session also featured Professor Todd Timmons of the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith on the use of roleplaying to assess President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bombs against Japan, and Tanya Bowers of the African American Community, Cultural, and Educational Society (AACCES) on teaching about the African-American experience. The audience engaged in a stimulating discussion in the Q&A session. Most agreed on the importance of reaching younger audiences and including diverse perspectives.

A highlight of the conference was a reception and panel on the preservation of Hanford’s B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor. The B Reactor is now part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park (MPNHP), which also has units at Oak Ridge, TN, and Los Alamos, NM. The panel included Del Ballard of the B Reactor Museum Association (BRMA), Colleen French, senior official with the Department of Energy’s Richland Operations Office, Tom Marceau, archaeology professor at WSU Tri-Cities, and former Congressman “Doc” Hastings. Each played an instrumental role over the last 15 years in preserving B Reactor and Hanford’s Manhattan Project heritage. As chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Hastings’s leadership and unflagging support were critical to the passage of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act. BRMA recognized the role that AHF played in preventing B Reactor from being “cocooned” and working on the legislation for the MPNHP.

Other sessions provided a variety of perspectives on the Manhattan Project. One panel featured several downwinders, local residents who believe that Hanford’s plutonium production during the Manhattan Project and Cold War caused cancer and other adverse health effects. The spokespersons urged that the downwinders’ stories be included in the interpretation of Hanford’s history.

Several presenters focused on the roles of African-Americans and women in the Manhattan Project. Terry Andre of BRMA gave an engaging presentation on physicist Leona Marshall Libby, featuring excerpts from her 1986 interview with S. L. Sanger on the “Voices of the Manhattan Project” website. Tanya Bowers, Leonard Moore, and Vanis Daniels of AACCES described the experience of the 15,000 African-Americans who worked at Hanford. They faced racism, segregation, and discrimination during and after the Manhattan Project. AACCES is working to document and preserve this important chapter of Hanford’s history.

Una Gilmartin, a structural engineer and historic preservationist, gave a fascinating account of the preservation of the B Reactor. She also explained her work to restore the White Bluffs Bank, one of the few remaining pre-Manhattan Project structures on the Hanford Site. Kathleen Flenniken, previously the poet laureate of Washington State and a former engineer at Hanford, read from her collection Plume, reflecting on her childhood in Richland and coming to terms with the truth about Hanford. She poignantly illustrated the risks of working at Hanford through the story of her childhood friend whose father died of a blood disease.

Manhattan Project National Historical Park superintendent Kris Kirby updated attendees on the park’s progress. After recently completing the park’s foundation document, the National Park Service will now begin the process of developing an interpretive plan, collections management plan, and introductory film. Kirby emphasized NPS’s commitment to including different voices and perspectives in the Manhattan Project NHP. You can read more about NPS’s interpretive themes here.

The last day of the conference included a bus tour of the Hanford Site, with stops at the B Reactor and the White Bluffs Bank. A howling wind was reminiscent of the “termination winds” that drove Manhattan Project recruits to go back home. Despite the wind, Nate Weisenberg enjoyed visiting Hanford for the first time and marveled at the landscape. You can see photographs from the visit below.

We are grateful to the Hanford History Project for organizing an excellent conference. The program included many different perspectives on the Manhattan Project and its legacy. AHF looks forward to working with WSU Tri-Cities, BRMA, AACCES and the many others who are working to preserve and share the Manhattan Project story in its full complexity.