NPS to Host Meeting on Manhattan Project Park

NPS to Host Meeting on Manhattan Project Park

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Washington, DC, February 8, 2010 — The National Park Service (NPS) just released its draft study on whether to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. At stake is a new national historical park to preserve one of the most important and controversial developments in the twentieth century—the creation of the world’s first atomic bombs. The meeting will be Tuesday, February 9, 2010, from 1:00 PM to 5:30 PM at the Old Post Office Pavilion, room M-09, 11th and Pennsylvania, NW, in Washington, DC.

The Manhattan Project was perhaps the most ambitious scientific and engineering undertaking in the last century. The harnessing of atomic energy was a turning point for mankind, irreversibly changing the history, politics, science and culture of the nation and the world. In a remarkable 27 months, scientists and engineers went from theoretical physics to a “gadget” that could be loaded into the bomb bay of a B-29 and released to produce a devastating explosion thousands of times greater than a conventional weapon.

There are many valuable lessons to be learned from this history. Leaders across the political spectrum today invoke the Manhattan Project as a model for solving our energy problems or finding ways to prevent and cure cancer. The Manhattan Project gave birth to Big Science and national laboratories. It established America’s prowess in science and technology. Among its legacies are nuclear medicine, nuclear energy, supercomputers, outer space exploration and the human genome project. Moreover, the continued threat of nuclear weapons and their proliferation underscore the importance of this history for today.

Currently, there are no national parks that preserve Manhattan Project resources or tell the story of the top-secret World War II project. Congress passed the “Manhattan Project National Historical Park Study Act” with bipartisan support in 2004. As a first step towards creating a new national park, the legislation directed the National Park Service to consider the three major Manhattan Project sites at Los Alamos, NM, Oak Ridge, TN, and Hanford, WA, as well as Dayton, OH.

Of the four Manhattan Project sites under consideration, the NPS embraced only Los Alamos, NM, for inclusion in a future Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Los Alamos was the site of the scientific laboratory where J. Robert Oppenheimer and his “galaxy of luminaries” designed the first atomic bombs. We commend the Park Service’s decision to include Los Alamos but believe that Hanford and Oak Ridge deserve equal status as units of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Of the 130,000 individuals who were employed by the Project, only 5,000 were based in Los Alamos. Nearly 125,000 others worked to produce fissile material for the bombs at Hanford and Oak Ridge. Hanford was the site of the world’s first plutonium production reactors along the shores of the Columbia River in eastern Washington. The B Reactor has become a destination for tourists interested in the Manhattan Project.

At Oak Ridge, three of the Department of Energy’s “Signature Facilities of the Manhattan Project” and many community properties including an original church, dormitories, guest house, shopping centers and numerous “alphabet” houses remain. These historic resources are important national assets for educating future generations about the Manhattan Project and its legacy. 

We urge the National Park Service to create a three-site national park and to recognize that the production of fissile material at Hanford and Oak Ridge was vital to the creation of the first atomic bombs. While Dayton played an important role in developing the polonium or the neutron generators for the bombs, the Ohio site lacks the resources and significance of the other three.

The National Park Service argues that including the two major production sites in a Manhattan Project National Historical Park would not be feasible. The study cites financial and management challenges associated with having sites in dispersed locations, liability for future cleanup and maintenance, and visitor and employee safety. Another issue is limited public access to the Department’s facilities “behind the fence” as well as some privately-owned structures in the community. Finally, the study cites the uncertainty of Congressional funding.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation and the communities of Hanford and Oak Ridge believe that these concerns can be addressed. NPS currently runs a number of discontiguous park sites such as the Klondike Gold Rush National Park with units in Seattle, WA, and Skagway, AK, 1800 miles apart. Other park sites, such as Cold Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, involve complex land ownership agreements. Created in 2002 to preserve the Civil War battlefield and antebellum plantation, most of the park remains under private ownership and is still closed to visitors. Given this and similar precedents, the fact that some of the Department of Energy’s Manhattan Project properties are not now regularly accessible to the public should not disqualify Hanford or Oak Ridge from being included in a Manhattan Project national historical park.

An agreement with the Department of Energy could address the National Park Service’s concerns over potential maintenance costs, security, safety and environmental issues. The Department of Energy could continue to be responsible for its properties. Legislation creating a park could provide special appropriations to DOE for operating and maintaining its facilities. As “the nation’s storyteller,” the NPS would continue to do what it does best—interpret and educate visitors about this important chapter of American and world history. We urge managers at the two Federal agencies to explore these issues with the goal of reaching an agreement over the next few months. 

A Prototype for Future Parks
A Manhattan Project National Historical Park at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford could be a prototype for 21st-century parks. 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 the few remaining properties. These recommendations include engaging diverse audiences, providing lifelong, place-based learning, strengthening collaboration with partners, and using technologies and media to further these aims.

A Manhattan Project National Historical Park, combining scientific, military, industrial, social and cultural history, could broaden the NPS narrative and reach new, diverse audiences. The use of innovative, web-based technologies, such as NPS’s Views of the National Parks program, in conjunction with the physical Manhattan Project park would make this history widely accessible while enhancing the park’s educational capacity. Community groups and organizations, such as the Los Alamos Historical Society, the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association and the Hanford B Reactor Museum Association, could provide programming at the park site.

Affiliated Areas
The Atomic Heritage Foundation also supports the designation of affiliated areas with the establishment of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. An affiliated area is not an official unit of the National Park System but is recognized by Congress and managed by an outside entity under a cooperative agreement with the Park Service.

Manhattan Project sites deserving this recognition include the Met Lab at the University of Chicago, where the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was produced under the bleachers at the football stadium; the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, where physicist E.O. Lawrence developed the cyclotron; the Trinity site at Alamogordo, NM, where the first atomic bomb test was conducted; the air field at Wendover, UT, where the 509th Composite Group trained; and Tinian Island, where the bombers from the 509th carrying the atomic bombs launched their attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Each of these sites tells an important part of the Manhattan Project story.

America’s Best Idea
Wallace Stegner called the National Parks “America’s Best Idea.” Although nearly one hundred billion dollars have 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. The continued threat and proliferation of nuclear weapons underscore the importance of this history for today. The nation needs to preserve some of the authentic properties of the Manhattan Project and remember the people whose work helped bring an end to World War II and launch the atomic age over sixty-five years ago. The new park can be a springboard for educating the public about the risks and realities of nuclear weapons and how the vision of a world without nuclear weapons might be attained.

Public Meeting on February 9, 2010
The National Park Service meeting to discuss the draft study will be Tuesday, February 9, 2010, from 1:00 PM to 5:30 PM at the Old Post Office Pavilion, room M-09, 11th and Pennsylvania, NW, near the Federal Triangle Metro Station. NPS will have an open house beginning at 1 PM and will make a presentation at 2:30 PM followed by an opportunity for questions and answers. Carla McConnell, who is in charge of the study, will be leading the meeting.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation urges members of the Washington, DC community to participate in the meeting and submit written comments to advocate for the creation of a three-site Manhattan Project National Historical Park with affiliated areas. The public comment period will be open through March 1, 2010. Comments must be submitted in writing for consideration in the final study. The online comment form is available at along with a copy of the 216-page study. 

Details about the public meetings, the National Park Service’s newsletter summarizing the study’s alternatives and link to the full report are available on the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s website at