National Park Service Releases Study of Manhattan Project Sites

National Park Service Releases Study of Manhattan Project Sites

Manhattan Project emblem

The National Park Service released its long-awaited draft study on whether to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Currently, there are no national parks that preserve Manhattan Project resources or tell the story of the top-secret World War II project that created the world’s first atomic bombs. The National Park Service study is the first step in designating a new national park. While the study falls short of embracing a Manhattan Project National Historical Park at all four major sites, it does propose a National Historical Park at Los Alamos, NM, and welcomes suggestions from the public.


Wallace Stegner called the National Parks “America’s Best Idea.” In September 2009, the National Parks Second Century Commission, co-chaired by Senators Howard Baker, Jr. and Bennett Johnston, Jr., strongly urged Congress to expand the role of the national parks to represent the diversity of our heritage.

The Commission’s recommendations reinforce the merits of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park and the need to preserve some of the few remaining properties. Although nearly one hundred billion has been spent on cleanup of the former nuclear weapons sites, very few resources have been devoted to preserving the places where the ambitious scientific and engineering undertaking occurred. Despite today’s controversies over nuclear weapons, the nation needs to preserve some of the authentic properties of the Manhattan Project and remember the people who helped bring an end to World War II and launch the atomic age over sixty-five years ago.
The study has been underway for almost five years. Congress passed the “Manhattan Project National Historical Park Study Act” in 2004 [Public Law 108-340] with bipartisan support. The Act directed the Secretary of the Interior to “conduct a study on the preservation and interpretation of historic sites of the Manhattan Project for potential inclusion in the National Park system.” Specifically, Congress directed the National Park Service to study the resources of four Manhattan Project sites: Los Alamos, NM, Oak Ridge, TN, Hanford, WA, and Dayton, OH. 

In order to determine whether a resource should be added to the national park system, the National Park Service (NPS) has three major criteria: whether the resource is “nationally significant,” whether it is “suitable” for inclusion in the park system, and whether such inclusion is “feasible.” The NPS study considered all four Manhattan Project sites collectively and found them “nationally significant” and “suitable” but that a national historical park encompassing all four sites was not “feasible.” For a variety of reasons, the National Park Service believes that it could not efficiently administer the four—or even three—widely dispersed sites at a reasonable cost.

Instead, the draft study presents five management alternatives on a continuum from A to E. Briefly, alternative A is “no action,” continuing the current patchwork of programs and policies. Alternative B establishes a nationwide nonprofit consortium to work with the Department of Energy and other owners of Manhattan Project properties to coordinate preservation efforts, raise funds and provide a web-based network. Alternative C seeks Congressional designation of a Manhattan Project National Heritage Area that could include the four and possibly additional Manhattan Project sites. A management entity would work to coordinate interpretation and raise funds for preservation. Currently, there are forty-nine national heritage areas and each area is eligible to receive up to $1 million in Federal matching funds each year up to a maximum of $10 million.

Alternative D also falls short of creating a unit of the national park system. Instead, Congress would designate key resources in each of the Manhattan Project sites as the Manhattan Project National Historic Sites and establish a commission to oversee the preservation and public use of the sites. The sites would be considered “affiliated areas” of the national park system and the National Park Service would not own the facilities or lands. The Department of Energy would be authorized to request funds to preserve and maintain its Signature Facilities of the Manhattan Project but preservation and interpretation of other historic properties would depend upon raising private and public funding sources. 

Finally, alternative E establishes a Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Los Alamos. Only this alternative calls for some outright National Park Service ownership and creating a new unit of the national park system. A Manhattan Project National Historical Park at Los Alamos could be managed jointly with the Bandelier National Monument, which is physically adjacent to Los Alamos. During the Manhattan Project, some families camped at Bandelier while waiting for housing to become available. The other three sites would be associated with but not operationally part of the Los Alamos-based National Historical Park.

Alternative E provides the greatest long-term assurance that the Manhattan Project resources at Los Alamos will be preserved. For the other sites, separate legislation would authorize and provide appropriations to the Department of Energy for long-term preservation of its key Manhattan Project resources. The alternative also provides more incentive for other sites to enter into agreements with the National Park Service to protect their resources.

For example, Oak Ridge and Hanford might be included in the national park system if certain agreements can be reached with the Department of Energy. For example, the Y-12 Beta-3 calutrons at Oak Ridge are currently behind security fences with very limited public access. However, the study allows that if the Department of Energy redefines its security boundaries, it may be possible to designate it as a unit of the national park system. Similarly, the Oak Ridge Historic District presents a management challenge with many complex landownership patterns that would make administration by the National Park Service extremely difficult. If the NPS unit encompasses a limited area, its administration may be “feasible.”

Nonetheless, the study expresses concern about the challenges and costs of establishing a new unit of the park system for the entire study area. Among other things, visitor and employee safety at radioactively contaminated sites is a serious concern. 

The National Park Service is holding public meetings at Hanford, on Wednesday, January 20, 2010; Oak Ridge, Tuesday, January 26; Dayton, Thursday, January 28; and Los Alamos, Tuesday, February 2. The public comment period will be open through March 1, 2010. 

The Atomic Heritage Foundation is also convening a meeting in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, February 9, 2010, to discuss the study. AHF is inviting local officials from the four sites as well as Congressional staff, officials from the Departments of the Interior and Energy, and other interested parties. The session will be a chance to exchange views among representatives from the Manhattan Project sites and to engage Congressional staff who could be considering legislation concerning a Manhattan Project National Historic Park as early as summer 2010.